Northern Ireland news

Council to plant trees on site of UVF-linked bonfire

Bloomfield Walkway in east Belfast, and right, a towering Eleventh Night bonfire on the walkway in 2015 which led to residents being evacuated from their homes
Brendan Hughes

TREES are to be planted on top of a notorious UVF-linked bonfire site under council plans.

It is the latest stage of landscaping works at an east Belfast greenway which have cost the public £190,000.

Bloomfield Walkway was closed off for the entire summer and flat land was changed to low hummocks in a move believed to be aimed at discouraging bonfire builders.

Design documents and internal emails uncovered by The Irish News show proposals to now plant trees atop these grassy mounds where a July bonfire once stood.

Dozens of trees are proposed for the stretch of the greenway between Beersbridge Road and Ravenscroft Avenue.

Belfast City Council said the tree planting is scheduled to begin "in the next few weeks".

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.

This year, the walkway was closed since early April for "environmental improvements" and reopened at the end of August. No pyre was built this summer.

The landscaping works, which included new benches and path resurfacing, were funded by Stormont's Department for Infrastructure (DfI) and carried out by Belfast council.

Both have not said publicly whether the works were aimed at discouraging a bonfire, instead describing the improvements as helping to create a "welcoming, safe and attractive" public space and better accessibility for walkers and cyclists.

But internal emails show how the walkway's use as a bonfire site was referenced during planning discussions.

In March, a DfI official emailed to a colleague to discuss the council's request for a licence to carry out the works.

"It appears to be work to make the area the bonfire usually goes on 'more hilly'," the Stormont official wrote.

A map of the landscaping shows the proposed planting of 15 new semi-mature trees, including some on a hummock where a bonfire was previously sited, and 10 new 'extra heavy standard' trees.

Asked whether the layout of the tree-planting will be in keeping with these plans, dated January 2018, a council spokesman said: "The tree planting will follow the existing plans.

"Minor changes may be carried out due to ground conditions or other factors at individual tree locations."

In an email in March, a council official notes how senior staff would be "developing plans around programming (and any engagement on bonfire issues)".

In a report on a community consultation about the plans, it said "overall attendees were against the return of the bonfire".

On the new "mounding", it was "viewed positively" by respondents as long as the space was usable, "specifically the importance of the mound on the recent bonfire sites to be more than a mound" but instead a "usable community space".

Feedback notes also said some expressed concern that "vandalism of amenities will [be] allowed around July holidays".

The Bloomfield plans were also discussed at a bonfire inter-agency meeting.

The documents were obtained by The Irish News through Freedom of Information requests.

UUP councillor Jim Rodgers in September described the Bloomfield works as a "magnificent job" and "good value for money".

He denied the works were related to discouraging a bonfire, but he urged bonfire builders to seek an alternative site.

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 nationalist New Lodge area.

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