Bonfires: Police understood to have issued gun violence warning to councillors

Gun violence could be orchestrated by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) if Belfast bonfire material is removed, it is understood police have warned councillors.

Menacing graffiti has already been written on a wall near Avoniel Leisure Centre in the east of the city opposing the local council intervention and officers believe there is a risk of serious violent clashes.

A pyre built on Belfast City Council-owned land is due to be burned on Thursday evening at the start of the loyalist Twelfth of July celebrations.

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officers are preparing to help Belfast City Council fulfil its decision to clear the site over health and safety concerns before the traditional Eleventh Night bonfires are lit.

Councillors said they received a stark warning about the potential impact of their resolution during a meeting on Wednesday afternoon.

Alliance Party councillor Emmet McDonough Brown said: “We are asking the police to intervene to support us at that site.”

The UVF was a pre-ceasefire armed group.

Battle of the Boyne bonfires
Loyalists held a rally at Avoniel Leisure Centre on Tuesday to protest against the council decision to demolish it (Liam McBurney/PA)

Despite taking part in the peace process it has more recently been accused by police of gangsterism and racketeering involving drugs and intimidation.

The elected representatives received information from police. It is understood that included the risk of serious violence orchestrated by the loyalist paramilitary grouping.

A statement from Belfast City Council said: “Today members of the strategic policy and resources committee met to discuss the ongoing situation and reaffirmed its previous decision to remove all materials from the site.

“As a result of information received from the PSNI, members also expressed concern about the involvement of the east Belfast UVF.”

On Monday and Tuesday, a majority of members voted for contractors to remove bonfire materials and flags erected on the council property at Avoniel.

Loyalists maintained an overnight presence at the site in anticipation of police and contractors moving in to demolish it.

The chained and barricaded entrance gates to Avoniel Leisure Centre
The chained and barricaded entrance gates to Avoniel Leisure Centre (Liam McBurney/PA)

A crowd gathered at the gates of the leisure centre in case the council-ordered intervention was carried out in the early hours of Wednesday.

Police did not act overnight, but bonfire builders still expect their arrival within the coming 24 hours.

The bonfire has been built in the car park of the centre.

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 of the 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.

Orange Order grand secretary Mervyn Gibson addresses supporters of the bonfire at Avoniel leisure centre
Orange Order grand secretary Mervyn Gibson addresses supporters of the bonfire at Avoniel leisure centre (Liam McBurney/PA)

The council committee has voted to send contractors, under police escort, to take down the bonfire at Avoniel, with the local authority saying it is acting in the interests of protecting life and property.

The council closed the leisure centre early on Tuesday afternoon.

Loyalists have 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.

A bonfire
Residents of three apartment blocks in Portadown have been encouraged to evacuate due to safety concerns around the nearby bonfire (Liam McBurney/PA)

Hundreds of loyalists attended a rally at the site on Tuesday night – an event which saw nationalist councillors accused of waging a cultural war against the unionist community.

Representatives of the bonfire builders have met police to urge them not to intervene to support the removal of the bonfire.

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 had 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.

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