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Police defend role during mediation over controversial bonfires

Police and contractors move into Cluan Place in east Belfast to remove a loyalist bonfire from the road on July 11. Picture Mal McCann.

THE PSNI have defended their actions in the run up to the removal of bonfire material from two controversial sites in east Belfast, after a leaked report showed police previously denied to independent mediators they planned to move in and take action.

Labour MP Kate Hoey had questioned the PSNI approach after a confidential report revealed a senior officer denied plans to assist contractors, at a time when the police operation to remove the bonfire material was already at an advanced stage.

The Belfast Bonfire Group report, compiled to give an overview of work undertaken by mediators, the Rev Harold Good and community facilitators Liam Maskey and Jim Ruddy to try and ease ongoing tensions around bonfires in the run up to July, has been seen by the Irish News.

It shows that a working group, which included representatives of the fire service, Housing Executive, Belfast City Council, PSNI, Department for Infrastructure (DfI) and various loyalist groups, examined 55 bonfires and held more than 90 meetings.

The report details the background to negotiations that took place around two fires linked to a group called 'Inner East Belfast' which remained problematic.

Masked contractors were drafted in to remove material from the Bloomfield Walkway and Cluan Place fires on July 11 following a High Court ruling which ordered land owners DfI to take action against the fires, which were believed to be a danger to nearby property.

The report states that following rumours the Walkway wood was to be lifted forcibly a mediator rang the PSNI distract commander "who confirmed that this was not the case" and agreed to phone loyalist representatives to ease fears.

He did this despite contractors already being on their way to Belfast and police assuring the city council they had drafted in extra officers to protect the workmen.

MP for Vauxhall Kate Hoey, said yesterday "This is very worrying behaviour" adding that it " undermines those who tried so hard to mediate" in relation to the fires.

However, Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said last night that "rumours of an intervention planned for that weekend (starting July 6) were hampering progress in the mediation process".

"In order to support the work of the mediators and the local community representatives, and after full discussion with the landowners, police informed those concerned that no such interventions were planned for that weekend.

"This position did not change until Tuesday 10 July when, as the direct result of a court order, the landowner DfI asked for police to support their contractors.

"Whilst police had planned for such a contingency, it was not the preferred approach nor ultimately was it a decision for police to act.

"It is simply not accurate to categorise this as police action in which others were reluctant participants. At all times police made it clear that their role was to provide for the safety of any contractors tasked by the landowners in response to public safety concerns, in the event that the landowner decided to intervene", ACC Todd added.

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