Calls for calm as loyalist bonfire protest forces Avoniel Leisure Centre to close
AVONIEL leisure centre in east Belfast was forced to close its doors yesterday afternoon after loyalists called for supporters to gather in protest at a council decision to remove a bonfire.
There were calls for calm amid concerns that an attempt to demolish the controversial pyre could prompt an angry backlash.
Belfast city councillors had yesterday reaffirmed a decision to send contractors, under police escort, to take down the bonfire in the leisure centre car park.
A committee reconvened to reassess the situation following a move by the bonfire builders on Monday evening to remove hundreds of tyres.
The decision to remove the bonfire remained unchanged, with a council spokeswoman saying it was acting in the interests of protecting life and property.
Unionist parties, who were in the minority on the committee, expressed disappointment at the decision.
The gates of the Avoniel centre were barricaded on Sunday in a pre-emptive bid to prevent police and contractors accessing the site, forcing the centre to close early for the day.
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Yesterday the gates were again barricaded with industrial bins and tyres as several hundred people gathered in protest.
East Belfast Glider services were diverted.
Earlier, a delegation representing bonfire builders met police at a city centre station to urge them not to intervene to support the removal of the bonfire.
They insisted taking away the tyres has rendered the bonfire safe and warned its demolition could lead to community tension spilling over.
Robert Girvin of the East Belfast Cultural Collective urged councillors to hold direct talks with loyalists.
"Have dialogue with us," he said. "Tell us exactly what your issue is with this bonfire."
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On Monday, the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee voted to use contractors to remove materials from the Avoniel site and another at nearby Ashdale Street car park.
Bonfire builders subsequently relocated the Ashdale fire to another site close to Mersey Street.
However, the Avoniel bonfire remains on site, partially constructed and with tyres removed, with builders showing no inclination to relocate it.
Early on Sunday morning, police supported masked council contractors as they removed about 1,800 tyres from a bonfire off London Road in south Belfast.
Sinn Fein councillor Deirdre Hargey said site assessments from statutory agencies reported that the Avoniel bonfire posed a "significant risk" to nearby property.
"As a council and public authority on which this bonfire is situated on our land we have to react to that for the public interest," she said.
Alliance city councillor Emmet McDonough Brown said: "This was never just about tyres in the bonfire - this was about other issues around damage to public property and private property.
"The fact this is a ratepayer-funded leisure centre which attracts people from across the community and those people have to be considered in this too."
A statement from DUP councillor George Dorrian, Progressive Unionist Party councillor John Kyle and Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers said: "We are disappointed that the SP&R committee chose not to build on the progress made by bonfire builders when they removed the tyres yesterday evening from Avoniel bonfire.
"This year has seen a dramatic improvement in the situation around bonfires throughout Belfast. We have spent months engaging with groups across the city and real progress is being made.
"We are confident that the community will fully enjoy the celebrations peacefully and respectfully.
"We urge those who are angered by the decision not to respond in a negative way which serves only to undermine the arguments made by unionist representatives at today's and previous committee meetings."