Belfast's New Lodge bonfire stand-off soon escalated to violence
ATTACHED to a lamppost in the New Lodge, a small yellow sign bearing a city council logo warns people against littering.
"Keep Belfast clean. No littering – £80 fine," the little sign reads, printed in black lettering.
A well-intended message no doubt, but yesterday a rather redundant one. Strewn on the ground lay rubbish ranging from glass and plastic bottles to old shopping trolleys.
The litter surrounded a towering bonfire made of stacks of pallets and built near a grassy mound in the nationalist north Belfast enclave.
The bonfire became the focus of an escalating stand-off with police, as two youths refused to come down from the structure.
Officers had moved in early in the morning in a bid to support contractors tasked with removing the bonfire, with rows of armoured vehicles and officers in riot gear assembling.
The stand-off seemed almost bemusing at first. At one point, what seemed to be a Deliveroo food delivery cyclist arrived at the bonfire with a McDonald's order to cheers from the two youths, before he was turned away by police.
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Many young people and children were among the crowd on the streets watching the dispute. Various people held aloft phones to take pictures and videos, while police also recorded the incident.
One onlooker joked: "It feels like Love Island or something with all these cameras!"
There were cheers from the 'bonfire two' as some in the crowd tried to throw bottles of water to them.
In one light-hearted moment, one of the youths atop the bonfire suggested the perils ahead if the stand-off continued.
"I'm trying to get to the toilet," he shouted to onlookers below.
But tensions soon escalated as officers in riot gear moved in, a crowd gathered beside the bonfire, and bricks, bottles and fireworks were hurled at police lines.
"This bonfire means too much to me to get down. I'm not giving in to these ones," one of the 'bonfire two' shouted to onlookers below.
He added: "We're going to light this at 12 o'clock from up here."
Some women at the foot of the pallet stack urged him to get down, with one shouting: "You're only making things worse."
Refusing to cooperate, he responded: "But then they're going to take the wood – that's what they're here for."
On a wall beside the bonfire, menacing graffiti had recently been sprayed saying that a neighbouring community centre would be targeted if any contractors removed the bonfire.
In some nationalist areas, bonfires are lit in August to mark the anniversary of the introduction of internment on August 9 1971.
But such pyres are now opposed by many neighbouring residents and mainstream nationalism, branding the activity "anti-social behaviour" and voicing safety concerns.
As more people arrived at the pyre urging the pair to get down, one of the youths relented and clambered off the structure.
Some in the crowd urged him not to, shouting: "You'll get scooped!"
The stand-off escalated again as a crowd charged at police lines, some throwing projectiles and some carrying pieces of metal fencing.
Wearing helmets and holding shields, some officers fell as the fencing was pushed against them. One officer fell to the ground injured as police with riot shields fended off demonstrators.
In the rush, two more youths clambered onto the bonfire.
"They didn't do that at Avoniel," said one woman who was critical of police actions – a reference to a disputed loyalist bonfire burned in July in a car park beside a leisure centre in east Belfast.
Her friend could be overheard responding sarcastically: "But Jamie Bryson says they're celebrating their tradition."
Just after 3pm, police ranks pulled out of the New Lodge. As they left, stones and and bricks were thrown at them.
Young people then put up a barrier across the main road leading to the bonfire.