Council axes plan to remove bonfire at Belfast leisure centre

Councillors in Belfast have agreed not to remove a loyalist bonfire at a leisure centre in the east of the city.

Members of Belfast City Council’s strategic policy and resources committee said they will instead pursue individuals for trespassing, investigate leaks around contractors, and form a working group for future years.

Two Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) vehicles arrived at the site of the bonfire at Avoniel Leisure Centre at around 5am on Thursday.

A woman read a statement from inside one of the vehicles, which was relayed on a loudspeaker, requesting that those on Belfast City Council property vacate the area.

The move came after the committee voted earlier this week to send contractors in to remove material from the bonfire in the leisure centre’s car park.

But after another meeting of the committee on Thursday morning, Alliance councillor Michael Long said it would be “counter-productive” to remove the material on July 11.

“We have got to take on board that there are children, young people and older people in that area,” he said.

Avoniel bonfire
Avoniel bonfire

“We do have to say that statutory agencies have to really get a grip on this. Belfast City Council has taken the lead on this over the last two or three years.

“It’s about time other statutory agencies lived up to their needs and what they should actually deliver for people.

“It is really disappointing that a democratically taken decision in Belfast City Council cannot be implemented, and that is a worrying development.”

Police are continuing to maintain a presence in the wider area.

A council spokeswoman said anyone on the site would be regarded as trespassing until the leisure centre reopens next week.

She added: “Council is anxious to secure the property and clear the site in order to prepare for return to normal use and provision of service to its ratepayers.”

The bonfire and supporters remain on site.

Battle of the Boyne bonfires
Battle of the Boyne bonfires

Organisers said they hope to light the bonfire as planned later on Thursday at the start of the loyalist Twelfth of July celebrations.

The council committee had been warned by police that guns could be used during severe violence orchestrated by loyalist paramilitaries if the bonfire material was removed.

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.”

Bandsmen from the Rising Sons Flute Band outside Avoniel Leisure Centre
Bandsmen from the Rising Sons Flute Band outside Avoniel Leisure Centre

Robert Girvin, from the East Belfast Cultural Collective, described what happened at the scene early on Thursday.

“A female council officer from the back of the vehicle read a statement out informing us all that we were aggravated trespassing on council property,” he told PA.

“At this time I can’t fault the PSNI, the PSNI came down and talked to us on the site, they have been amicable, informed us honestly and openly what is going on.”

Mr Girvin also rejected a suggestion that the bonfire is controlled by the UVF.

“It is controlled by the grannies, the mothers, the sisters, the children, the people of the local community,” he said.

“That’s who controls this, that’s who organises it and that’s who wants it. No-one wants violence.”

Robert Girvin at Avoniel Leisure Centre
Robert Girvin at Avoniel Leisure Centre

On Wednesday evening, local residents organised a family fun day beside the 20ft (6m) 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.

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.