Contentious bonfire site at Avoniel leisure centre evacuated after 'bomb threat'
A CONTENTIOUS east Belfast bonfire at the centre of a bitter stand-off was due to be lit last night after Belfast city councillors backed down over plans to remove it from the site.
The council abandoned an attempt to remove the bonfire after its hired private contractor pulled out when graffiti purporting to identify the company was sprayed near the site.
The decision was made at an emergency meeting yesterday.
Police had warned the council that sending in contractors could have led to serious disorder orchestrated by the UVF's East Belfast group, with the risk of gun violence.
Earlier, officers read statements to people at the site warning them they could be prosecuted under aggravated trespass laws.
It is understood the potential crime is linked to the closure of the leisure centre, which had to shut its doors after bonfire builders and supporters moved in to occupy the site.
The DUP MP for East Belfast Gavin Robinson said he believed the UVF was involved in the dispute.
He condemned the events surrounding the closure of the leisure centre on Sunday and said he believed "members of the UVF" were involved.
"That's not, in my view, an appropriate expression of culture," Mr Robinson told Radio Ulster.
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PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton condemned the intimidation of contractors.
"Such intimidation must not be tolerated," he said.
"The complaint from Belfast City Council citing aggravated trespassing at Avoniel Leisure Centre is now being investigated.
"Warnings have been delivered by Belfast City Council to inform people they are trespassing.
"We have an evidence gathering operation in place and all reasonable steps are being taken to establish if offences have been committed. Any evidence gathered will be considered independently by the Public Prosecution Service."
Councillors, who have asked police to investigate how the names of contractors were leaked from confidential deliberations, have also agreed to form working group to see how to handle the bonfire issue in coming years.
It came as the area was evacuated for a time yesterday amid a bomb scare. The car park at Avoniel Leisure Centre was evacuated yesterday afternoon after police were informed that a bomb threat had been made.
A death threat, allegedly from republicans, was also made to loyalist Jamie Bryson.
The area was searched yesterday afternoon but no bomb was found.
The loyalist tweeted last night: "Community carnival continuing, loyalists have no interest in the negativity or provocation. Ignoring it & moving on with celebrations."
Bonfire builders had maintained a 24-hour presence at the gates of the site since the council's strategic policy and resources committee first voted to take action on Monday.
They barricaded the gates in a bid to stop the demolition, with the leisure centre forced to close.
Several community events have also been staged at the site, with loyalists gathering to show support for the bonfire builders.
The council committee reaffirmed its decision to dismantle the bonfire at two subsequent meetings - on Tuesday and Wednesday.
But at the fourth specially convened meeting in four days yesterday morning, they ditched the plan.
Sinn Fein councillor Ciaran Beattie said he was "disappointed".
"This bonfire is illegal, it's a council leisure facility. It's been occupied, the gates have been barricaded, there's been UVF flags put up around the site, a bonfire has been put in the car park without permission," he said.
"This council still stands firm, this is an illegal bonfire."
Alliance councillor Michael Long said it would be "counter-productive" to remove the material on July 11.
"We have got to take on board that there are children, young people and older people in that area," he said.
"It is really disappointing that a democratically taken decision in Belfast City Council cannot be implemented, and that is a worrying development."
DUP councillor George Dorrian, who had argued against intervention at the site, said: "What we wanted was a positive outcome to this situation, we certainly didn't want anything to be inflamed or any confrontation with the police or council.
"We think this is sensible way forward."
Yesterday afternoon, after news filtered through about the council decision, the gates of the leisure centre were unlocked to allow members of the community to collect tyres that bonfire builders had removed from the pyre earlier in the week in a bid to allay council concerns.
Robert Girvin, from the East Belfast Cultural Collective, the group representing the bonfire builders, said he was "glad" the council had reversed its plans, however he criticised the decision to pursue prosecutions.
He also denied the UVF was involved.
He said: "This is a public park, there's a child's playground here and football pitches. Are they going to prosecute the people of Avoniel for using Avoniel Leisure Centre?
"Pettiness in the extreme. It's just getting daft.
"Unless the UVF is 70-year-old grannies and 12-year-old children, there's no UVF involvement here."