Northern Ireland news

UVF leader met DUP hours before controversial Bloomfield walkway bonfire set alight

Riot police presence at the Bloomfield Walkway bonfire after it was set alight when mediation between loyalists and the DUP failed. Picture by Mal McCann

SENIOR loyalists, including a man believed to be a UVF leader, attended a meeting with a DUP councillor that ran until the early hours of the morning in a last-ditch effort to resolve a bonfire dispute in east Belfast.

The Irish News has seen details of meetings that took place in the early hours of Wednesday, just hours before a bonfire at Bloomfield walkway was prematurely set on fire.

Lee Reynolds, the DUP group leader on Belfast City Council, was present at the meeting, as were Jamie Bryson and Stephen Matthews – widely believed to be the leader of the east Belfast UVF.

At 11.45pm on Tuesday Mr Reynolds and mediators met senior loyalists. Police were asked to attend but declined.

The meeting took place hours after the High Court ruled that the landowner, the Department for Infrastructure, was responsible for the protection of life and property on its land at the walkway and that the pyre had to be removed or dramatically reduced in size.

The meeting lasted until after 1am with loyalists from the East Belfast Community Initiative, including Bryson and Matthews, going to the walkway to speak with a crowd of around 150 young people who had gathered at the site.

This was done after speaking with mediators to calm tensions. There were fears at that time that the large crowd was preparing to engage in civil disorder and a large number of riot police were deployed to the area.

Stephen Matthews, widely believed to be the east Belfast UVF leader, attended the final-hour meetings

The bonfire builders were given the option to dismantle the bonfire themselves or told the PSNI and contractors – who were former members of the military – would take the material away, by force if necessary. 

Bonfire builders refused to dismantle the pyre, which was five times the fire-service-recommended height for the plot, saying they would sit on the wood to prevent it being moved.

At 5am police moved in to start removing the material. At this stage only around 15 young people remained at the site.

They set fire to the structure before fleeing, leaving fire crews to keep the blaze under control and hose down nearby properties.

Masked contractors moved in and removed the remaining wood under the protection of riot police.

The same contractors, protected by around 200 riot police, later removed a bonfire built in the middle of the road at Cluan Place in east Belfast.

When asked about the talks, the East Belfast Community Initiative said the “late-night meetings took place with the view to trying to de-escalate tensions”. 

“Who made up our delegation is a matter for ourselves. However, we can confirm that all attendees were present as representatives of EBCI. No-one in the delegation is a member of any proscribed organisation,” the spokesperson added.

Mr Reynolds has been approached for comment.

Police presence at the Bloomfield Walkway bonfire after it was set alight prematurely as contractors were about to move in. Picture Mal McCann.

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