Guns could be used during severe violence orchestrated by loyalist paramilitaries if Belfast bonfire material is removed, one of Northern Ireland’s most senior police officers said.
The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) opposes Belfast City Council’s proposed clearance operation after builders of the pyre trespassed on the local authority’s land near a leisure centre in the east of the city.
It is due to be burned on Thursday evening at the start of the loyalist Twelfth of July celebrations.
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) assistant chief constable Mark Hamilton said: “The intelligence picture indicates that any attempt by the Council to remove bonfire material will cause a severe violent confrontation, orchestrated by the UVF.
“The use of firearms during such disorder cannot be ruled out.”
He said officers were committed to help the council fulfil its decision to clear the site at Avoniel leisure centre car park before the traditional Eleventh Night bonfires are lit.
But a contractor due to carry out the work has pulled out.
Alliance Party city councillor Emmet McDonough Brown said: “We are asking the police to intervene to support us at that site.”
On Wednesday evening local residents organised a family fun day beside the 20-feet high pallet bonfire. It included a performance of loyalist songs by the Rising Sons Flute Band.
Organisers warned against violence but acknowledged anger in the community over the planned clearance.
The UVF was a pre-ceasefire armed group.
Despite taking part in the peace process it has more recently been accused by police of gangsterism and racketeering involving drugs and intimidation.
Mr Hamilton said: “I would urge people to heed the calls from the community and not to engage in any violent or criminal behaviour.
“The PSNI hopes to see a peaceful resolution to this issue.
“As always, it is the safety of the community that remains our primary concern. All PSNI actions must be lawful and proportionate and the situation continues to be kept under review.”
Sinn Fein councillor Ciaran Beattie called for unionist parties to “show leadership” to ensure the removal goes ahead without disruption, intimidation or death threats.
Rev Gibson also responded to reports of potential violence if the Avoniel bonfire is removed. pic.twitter.com/xe2FFJJ5vH
— Rebecca Black (@RBlackPA) July 10, 2019
The Orange Order’s Grand Secretary and Belfast Presbyterian minister Mervyn Gibson said he had not heard anyone threaten violence.
“We want to enjoy the culture, we want to have a peaceful night, and a peaceful day.”
On Monday and Tuesday, a majority of members of a council committee voted for contractors with police protection to remove bonfire materials and flags erected at Avoniel to protect life and property.
Huge bonfires will be lit in loyalist areas across Northern Ireland late on Thursday night to usher in the Twelfth of July, the main date in the Protestant loyal order marching season marking the 1690 Battle of the Boyne.
While most fires are lit without major incident, a number continue to prove contentious, with the authorities having taken action in recent years on structures deemed unsafe and posing a threat to nearby properties.
The council closed the leisure centre early on Tuesday afternoon after loyalists barricaded the gates with industrial bins and tyres in an effort to stop vehicles entering the site.
A secondary barricade – made up of tyres – has been placed further into the car park entrance.
In Portadown, Co Armagh, residents of three apartment blocks in the Corcrain area have been urged to evacuate their homes due to concerns about the size of a bonfire built nearby.
Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council also decided to hire contractors to make the structure safe.
However, several councillors claim that plan has now been ditched, with the council having been unable to secure a contractor willing to take down the bonfire, despite approaching more than 35 companies.