Loyalists keep 24-hour watch over controversial Belfast bonfire site

Loyalists maintained an overnight presence at a contentious bonfire site in Belfast in anticipation of police and contractors moving in to demolish it.

A crowd gathered at the gates of the Avoniel Leisure Centre in the east of city in case the council-ordered intervention was carried out in the early hours.

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.

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)

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.

A Belfast City 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 amid rising community tensions over the fate of the fire, and it remained closed on Wednesday.

Battle of the Boyne bonfires
The chained and barricaded entrance gates to Avoniel Leisure Centre (Liam McBurney/PA)

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.

Sinister graffiti has been painted on nearby walls, warning against intervention.

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.

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

At the rally, Presbyterian minister and senior Orangeman Mervyn Gibson told people not to engage in criminal acts if the authorities intervened.

“I would appeal for calm at this bonfire,” he said.

“Do not react. I know that is going to be difficult because there is anger here, I am angry about the decision, but I would appeal that we do not react when they decide to move in, if they do decide to move in.”

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.

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

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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