Loyalists vow to resist Belfast council efforts to remove Avoniel bonfire

Belfast City Council has said it wants police to clear the bonfire
Allison Morris Security Correspondent

LOYALISTS last night vowed to resist any attempts to remove a bonfire in east Belfast after Belfast City Council stood firm on its decision to clear the site.

The pyre in the car park of council-owned land at Avoniel leisure centre is due to be burned tonight.

However, despite tyres being removed from the fire voluntarily by loyalists on Monday, the council has insisted it will go ahead to clear the site completely.

Since Monday loyalists have maintained a permanent presence at the site of the scaled down bonfire. Yesterday they held a ‘fun day’ with bouncy castles and a children’s party and bands playing in the leisure facility car park.

The latest - Belfast council will not remove Avoniel bonfire

Hundreds of loyalists attended a rally at the site on Tuesday night – an event that saw nationalist councillors accused of waging a cultural war against the unionist community.

Representatives of the bonfire builders also met police to urge them not to intervene to support the removal of the bonfire.

A barricade was erected at the leisure centre gates but has now been removed.

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However, council officials yesterday voted again to press ahead with plans to remove the bonfire. The PSNI is preparing to help the council fulfil its decision to clear the site.

It came as councillors received a briefing yesterday about the potential impact of moving into the site, with the PSNI warning that there was UVF involvement in the bonfire and any forced intervention could result in violence.

An Eleventh Night bonfire has been built in the car park of Avoniel Leisure Centre 

A PSNI letter to council officials revealed police fear “severe violent confrontation” if they move in to dismantle the Avoniel Leisure Centre pyre.

Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton said that although police remain ready to assist any contractor secured by the council: “PSNI don’t have any legal powers regarding the removal of bonfire-related material.”

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Menacing graffiti has already been written on a wall near the leisure centre opposing council intervention and officers believe there is a risk of serious violent clashes.

It is also thought that a contractor employed by the council to remove the material has pulled out after threats to the business. It is not known if the council has managed to source an alternative contractor at such short notice.

Alliance Party councillor Emmet McDonough-Brown said last night: “We are asking the police to intervene to support us at that site.”

Sinn Féin councillor Ciaran Beattie called for unionist parties to “show leadership to ensure the removal goes ahead without disruption and without the kind of intimidation and even death threats that we have seen in recent days”.

A statement from Belfast City Council said: “Today members of the strategic policy and resources committee met to discuss the ongoing situation and reaffirmed its previous decision to remove all materials from the site.

“As a result of information received from the PSNI, members also expressed concern about the involvement of the east Belfast UVF.”

Senior Orangeman the Rev Mervyn Gibson, who is supporting the bonfire builders, has criticised the council saying it was a “spiteful, vindictive, obsessive campaign against Avoniel bonfire”.

“Avoniel bonfire is 21-feet high, with no tyres, no threat to any building – it meets the Fire Service guidelines – it is no longer a dangerous bonfire – what excuse are Councillors now using to remove wood?”, he added.

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