Trees planted at Christmas on site of UVF-linked bonfire in east Belfast
TREES have been planted during the Christmas period on top of a notorious UVF-linked bonfire site in east Belfast.
It is part of landscaping works at Bloomfield Walkway which cost the public £190,000 and involved flat land being changed to low hummocks.
Some of the young trees have been planted on top of these grassy mounds in efforts believed to be aimed at discouraging bonfire builders.
The annual Eleventh Night bonfire at Bloomfield has repeatedly caused controversy due to its size and proximity to homes.
Masked contractors were sent to remove bonfire material last year after a judge ordered Stormont officials to take action.
The High Court heard that the towering pyre was under the control of "sinister forces" within the east Belfast UVF.
In 2015, dozens of families had to flee their homes when the bonfire was built along the walkway next to Chobham Street.
No pyre was built this summer as the walkway was closed since early April for "environmental improvements" and reopened at the end of August.
The landscaping works, which included new benches and path resurfacing, were funded by Stormont's Department for Infrastructure and carried out by Belfast City Council.
They have described the improvements as helping to create a "welcoming, safe and attractive" public space and better accessibility for walkers and cyclists.
Both have not said publicly whether the works were aimed at discouraging a bonfire, but internal emails show the walkway's use as a bonfire site was referenced during planning discussions.
Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers welcomed the landscaping works, saying it would make a "tremendous difference".
He denied the works were related to discouraging a bonfire, but urged bonfire builders to seek an alternative site.
"What we don't want to find is all the good work being damaged by a bonfire," he said.
Mr Rodgers also warned against vandalism of the new surrounds and urged people to respect the area.
"We always find that you get some people just hell bent on damaging and vandalising, but I would put out an appeal to everybody to respect what has now happened there – we have worked hard to get it," he said.
Dozens of new trees were proposed for the stretch of the greenway between Beersbridge Road and Ravenscroft Avenue under the council plans. The trees are believed to have been planted early last week.
Correspondence uncovered last month by The Irish News revealed the plans were discussed at a bonfire inter-agency meeting.
A report on a community consultation about the plans said "overall attendees were against the return of the bonfire", while in an email a Stormont official told a colleague: "It appears to be work to make the area the bonfire usually goes on 'more hilly'."
The landscaping works at Bloomfield came amid a summer which saw tensions escalate over numerous bonfires in the north.
In July a pyre at an east Belfast leisure centre was at the focus of a stand-off with loyalists over council efforts to remove it, while in August police were injured at a bonfire site in north Belfast's mainly nationalist New Lodge area.