Northern Ireland

Bonfire report reveals PSNI denied they were planning to protect masked contractors

PSNI giving protection to masked contractors at Cluan Place in east Belfast on July 11. Picture Mal McCann.
PSNI giving protection to masked contractors at Cluan Place in east Belfast on July 11. Picture Mal McCann. PSNI giving protection to masked contractors at Cluan Place in east Belfast on July 11. Picture Mal McCann.

A confidential bonfire report, compiled after masked contractors being drafted in to remove wood from two controversial Belfast bonfires sites this summer, states that the Department for Infrastructure (DfI), were reluctant participants in the police action.

The report reveals that since November 2017 loyalists had been working with a team of mediators which included the Rev Harold Good and community facilitators Liam Maskey and Jim Ruddy to try and ease ongoing contention around bonfires.

The working group, which included representatives of the fire service, the Housing Executive, Belfast City Council, PSNI, DfI and various loyalist groups, looked at 55 bonfires and held more than 90 meetings.

The report reveals that just days before the police operation, a senior PSNI commander told mediators there were no plans to forcibly remove wood from two sites in east Belfast, despite the Irish News revealing at the time that contractors from outside of Northern Ireland had already been hired and were en route.

An entire section of the bonfire report is dedicated to a group called 'Inner East' Belfast, which it states was represented at meetings throughout the process despite "many of our different partners" stating that loyalists with influence from the area "would not enter into the spirit of what we were trying to achieve".

It says a senior loyalist from east Belfast took the bonfire group to all the planned sites in the area, with the Bloomfield Walkway and Cluan Place "recognised as being problematic".

On Friday July 6, the report states that bonfire builders reluctantly agreed to make the Walkway fire 55 pallets high. The previous year it had been almost three times that size. The report states that the fire service said this was not ideal but they could "manage the risk"

Following rumours that the Walkway wood was to be lifted forcibly one of the mediators rang the PSNI distract commander "who confirmed that this was not the case" and agreed to phone loyalist representatives to ease fears. He did this despite contractors already being on their way to Belfast and police assuring the city council they had drafted in extra officers to protect the workmen.

On Tuesday July 10, the High Court ruled DfI was responsible for the protection of life and property, after safety concerns around the Bloomfield walkway bonfire and ordered them to reduce the fire to three meters in height.

A series of meetings to try and resolve the dispute around the Walkway went on until the early hours of the morning but failed to reach an amicable solution and loyalist youths set fire to the wood at around 5am on July 11.

The bonfire at Cluan Place was not part of a court injunction but was on DfI land. The leaked report, which has been seen by the Irish News, shows that loyalist were en route to the bonfire to talk to the community about reducing the size and this action was agreed with DfI officials.

It states that at 11.15am on July 11, a local community representative asked could he be given until noon to reduce the fire at Cluan Place by half.

A DfI official told mediators no more time could be given "because council and police wanted to move without delay, there was an attempt by the local community reps to deal with this issues, but time did not allow for this to take place", the report states.

The report ads the bonfires at Bloomfield Walkway and Cluan Place, were "a microcosm of all the work that our partners carried out" saying the group "should receive political endorsement going forward".