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Allison Morris: Cluan Place bonfire removal an unprecedented scene even by Northern Ireland standards

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

I've reported on many long, hot summers of civil unrest in Northern Ireland.

And while pictures of disputes, stand-offs, and riots, are depressingly familiar, police guarding masked contractors as they remove bonfire material in the heart of loyalist east Belfast is an unprecedented image, one that both shocked and surprised many.

Newtownards Road loyalists and those hemmed into Cluan Place were angry yesterday.

Confused anger is easy to understand after decades of building bonfires with little sanction from any statutory body, most wanted to know why now? Why this bonfire?

Problem bonfires, built to skyscraper heights using wooden pallets have only really become an issue the last ten years, like a pyrotechnic game of Jenga, threatening life and property.

In reality most bonfires pass with little incident, problem fires are in the minority.

When this paper reported last week that Belfast City Council the Department for Infrastructure and PSNI had a plan in place to remove bonfire material from the Bloomfield walkway in east Belfast, unionists - who had agreed to the proposal - got cold feet and rowed back on a previous commitment.

As with so many important issues since the collapse of the Stormont assembly it was left to the courts to legislate for the problem bonfire at Bloomfield walkway.

That loyalists set fire to the wooden structure before police and contractors could move in and enforce Tuesday's court order, does not take away from the significance of the ruling.

That the DfI, took a further step of removing the bonfire at Cluan Place, a small structure placed on a road but filled with toxic tyres, was unexpected.

Contractors, hired from outside Northern Ireland, wearing masks, driving unmarked vehicles with the licence plates removed began the operation yesterday afternoon as shocked locals watched.

Will this set a precedent, has a warning shot been fired across the bow, of those who build problem bonfires?

The new proactive stance witnesses in east Belfast yesterday will be welcomed by many.

But steps must also be taken to make sure that this kind of expensive and potentially inflammatory action is unnecessary next year and the year after that.

Prevention is always better than cure, stopping loyalists accessing unsafe residential sites in the first place while earmarking areas with safe space for future fires must surely be the way forward.

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