Removal of benches from Belfast public square by council officials 'looked like an act of vandalism'

A rally was held at Jubilee Square to highlight the plight of the homeless after the removal of benches by Belfast City Council. Picture by Mal McCann

THE removal of benches from a public square in Belfast city centre used by rough sleepers "looked like an act of vandalism", the organiser of a protest against their withdrawal has said.

Belfast City Council replaced wooden slats on the benches on Thursday, after it had earlier cut them off to prevent people gathering in Jubilee Square, at the junction of Victoria Street and High Street.

The Irish News revealed last week that the council had removed the benches, leaving only concrete blocks on either side, as part of "general improvements" aimed at reducing "any potential for anti-social behaviour". It followed complaints from businesses and members of the public.

However, after a backlash from homeless campaigners and pressure from councillors - who expressed anger that they had not been consulted about the move - the council reinstalled the slats.

A small gathering was held yesterday at Jubilee Square welcoming the council's U-turn and highlighting homelessness.

As the gathering got underway, a group of tourists arrived in the square accompanied by a tour guide who explained to be bemused visitors why there was a protest taking place.

Organised by social media enterprise VIEWdigital, its editor and co-founder Brian Pelan said that the reinstatement of the benches was a "small victory".

"When I read The Irish News article that the benches had been removed, I came round to see them. It looked like an act of vandalism. I don't understand how the council would just remove park benches?

"Does that mean that at any park in the city where they deem there to be antisocial behaviour they will remove benches?"

Mr Pelan added: "I am not a politician but I believe we need a massive programme of social housing. It is a big issue in Britain at the moment and it would be great if we could have the same debate here."

A letter was read from singer Brian Kennedy, who said: "I don't understand how anyone could be so heartless as to destroy benches which must surely give at least some elevated comfort from the cold hard ground. Love to all you kind hearted people of Belfast."

SDLP councillor and homeless campaigner Paul McCusker said he believes the benches will remain in Jubilee Square permanently.

"I don't feel there is any appetite for removing this now," he said.

"Most people who were coming here were drinkers doing so during the day. The removal of these benches would solve nothing. We need to engage with the people using this space.

"The biggest thing here is that council didn't follow the processes, and it is to be hoped that council officials would learn some lessons from that," added Mr McCusker.

A Belfast City Council spokeswoman said on Wednesday that reinstalling the benches was a "temporary measure" pending a more detailed council review which will take place early in the new year.

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