Northern Ireland news

Missiles thrown at police in New Lodge bonfire stand-off

A policeman injured at the New Lodge estate in north Belfast. Picture by Matt Bohill
Brendan Hughes

The residents of around 100 flats in two New Lodge blocks were advised to evacuate their homes last night due to the danger from an anti-internment bonfire.

The Housing Executive said it could not guarantee residents safety and advised people to evacuate Oisin and Fianna towers. It is understood there are around 100 flats between the two blocks but not all are occupied.

The announcement came after police blamed dissident republicans for orchestrating violence. Bricks and bottles had been hurled at police during a stand-off at the north Belfast bonfire.

Pieces of metal fencing were pushed towards police lines as a crowd gathered beside the pyre.

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One officer fell to the ground injured by a missile as rows of police in riot gear fended off some in the crowd. Police later said three officers were injured.

The face-off began yesterday morning after two youths refused to come down from the bonfire.

Police hold the line in the New Lodge estate, north Belfast. Picture by Matt Bohill

Police had arrived in an attempt to support contractors tasked with removing the stacks of pallets, but the operation was later abandoned.

As scores of armoured police vehicles left the area yesterday afternoon, stones and bricks were thrown at them.

Young people then put up a barrier across the main street leading to the bonfire while teenagers held their hands up in triumph from atop the pyre and last night Union flags were being erected at the top of the pallets in anticipation of its midnight burning.

Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said he regretted the failure of an operation involving more than 150 officers to allow contractors to remove the wooden pallet pyre in the nationalist estate.

Mr Todd said: "It is a question for me as a police commander.

"Am I going to continue ramping up the use of police force against a wider community with innocent members present?

"Including water cannon, including the potential for AEPs, commonly known as plastic bullets in parlance in the area.

"Am I prepared to do that merely to save face on behalf of the organisation and sacrifice public safety as a result?

"The answer is, no I am not."

Referencing the murder of journalist Lyra McKee by dissident republicans in Derry earlier this year during disturbances, Mr Todd said police did "not need to learn the lesson" of the risk to innocent bystanders.

Two youths on top of a bonfire in the New Lodge, north Belfast

Mr Todd said a significant number of women and children in the crowd were being used as human shields.

The senior commander said he had an obligation to minimise the use of force and the risk to public safety.

"I regrettably have had to take a decision today that the risks of continuing the operation to remove a bonfire were outweighed by the risks that operation would then pose to the wider community, to women and children and others there present.

"That is a matter of regret to me that we were not successful in the objective of the operation but it is nonetheless a responsible, professional policing decision taken within the law and taken with very little room for other decisions to be made."

Six petrol bombs were recovered in the operation and a 13-year-old boy was arrested on suspicion of riotous and disorderly behaviour.

Mr Todd added that the violence came from youths who were being manipulated by older people, "probably related to violent dissident republican groupings".

Bonfires are lit in some nationalist areas to mark the anniversary of the introduction of internment on August 9 1971.

But the practice is largely opposed by residents and mainstream nationalist parties, with concerns raised over anti-social behaviour and safety.

Tensions have been mounting over the New Lodge bonfire in recent days.

The bonfire yesterday in the New Lodge area, north Belfast

Graffiti appeared on a nearby wall threatening to target a community centre and contractors if pallets were removed.

Last week, masked teenagers were pictured online playing a games console plugged into a street light, claiming that they had petrol bombs at the ready.

Mark Lindsay, chair of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, condemned yesterday's scenes.

"Officers trying to protect the community and lawful agencies are once again caught in the middle and in the firing line," he said.

"They are being attacked with a range of missiles and iron fencing.

"In one assault by a mob, one officer is seen to be struck and knocked to the ground.

"This behaviour is contrary to the overwhelming wishes of the people of New Lodge who do not want this bonfire or their area hijacked by young thugs.

"Our officers are acting with professionalism and restraint and we would urge those orchestrating these vicious and unacceptable confrontations to pull back before people are seriously injured."

The bonfire, which had a tricolour flag on top, was built on land owned by Stormont's Department for Infrastructure.

The New Lodge is dominated by decades-old blocks of flats run by the Housing Executive.

A spokesman for the housing body said it had advised residents to leave the Oisin and Fianna tower blocks "as we cannot guarantee their safety, due to the proximity of the bonfire".

Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly described it as a "disgraceful situation because residents include people who are already vulnerable, some of whom have disabilities and other health related problems".

"The vast majority of the community have told us they do not want this bonfire. It has been built by anti-social elements, who torture this district throughout the year and many of whom are well known," he added.

Earlier, SDLP councillor Paul McCusker said people in the New Lodge do not want the bonfire.

"If there are threats made towards anybody, the job of police is to keep people safe, to ensure that these threats are investigated and also people are being protected, particularly buildings which are an important resource to the New Lodge, there's a family centre there," he told the BBC.

Belfast City Council said staff will "endeavour to remove the contentious graffiti as soon as practicably possible".

Patricia McKeown, regional secretary of trade union Unison, condemned the graffiti threats against the North Belfast Family Centre as "completely unacceptable".

"We utterly condemn anyone who would make threats such as these against a Family Centre. We are aware that a police investigation is underway, but we expect the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust to take steps to protect service users and workers," she said.

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