By David Young
Belfast councillors have reaffirmed a decision to intervene to remove a contentious loyalist bonfire built in a leisure centre car park.
A council committee reconvened on Tuesday following a move by the bonfire builders to extract hundreds of tyres from the controversial structure at the Avoniel centre in east Belfast.
The committee stood by its original decision, taken on Monday, to send contractors in to take the bonfire down. A council spokeswoman said the decision was being taken in the interests of protecting life and property.
Police will be asked to escort contractors when they move in amid concerns about a violent backlash.
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 towering structures deemed unsafe and posing a threat to nearby properties.
The gates of the Avoniel centre were barricaded on Sunday in a pre-emptive bid to prevent police and contractors accessing the site, forcing the centre to close early for the day.
On Tuesday morning, a delegation representing the bonfire builders met police at a city centre station to urge them not to intervene to support the removal of the bonfire.
They insisted taking away the tyres has rendered the bonfire safe and warned its demolition would be unjustified and could lead to community tension spilling over.
Members of the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee met before lunch to reassess the situation. The majority position remained unaltered.
Afterwards, the council spokeswoman said: "Today, members of the SPR committee met again to discuss a number of bonfire sites.
"In relation to Avoniel, the outcome was to adhere to the original decision of the committee.
"Efforts have been ongoing for several months to encourage bonfire builders to be mindful of the need to protect life and property."
She added: "The committee also made it clear that any acts aimed at intimidating elected representatives or public officials are unacceptable and should be condemned."
Outside Musgrave Street police station on Tuesday morning, Jamie Bryson, a representative of the bonfire builders from the East Belfast Cultural Collective, said: "We are now at a tipping point and should masked contractors and police go in to remove what is now a perfectly safe bonfire with no tyres then any influence we have will be exhausted at that point in time and it's anybody's guess where we go at that point."
On Monday, the committee voted to use contractors to remove materials from the Avoniel site and another at nearby Ashdale Street car park.
Bonfire builders subsequently relocated the Ashdale Street fire to another site close to Mersey Street.
However, the Avoniel bonfire remains on site, partially constructed, with builders showing no inclination to relocate it.
Early on Sunday police supported masked council contractors as they removed about 1,800 tyres from a bonfire off London Road in south Belfast.
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 the bonfire built close-by.
Loyalists are planning to hold a rally at the Avoniel site at 7pm on Tuesday to protest.
In response, the city council announced the early closure of the leisure centre on Tuesday.
After the committee meeting, Sinn Fein councillor Deirdre Hargey said site assessments from statutory agencies reported that the bonfire posed a "significant risk" to nearby property.
"As a council and public authority on which this bonfire is situated on our land we have to react to that for the public interest," she said.
She said concerns were wider than just the tyres.
"This is just a story that is being spun - this is about the proximity of that bonfire, the scale and the massing of that bonfire next to a leisure centre within the car park of a leisure centre, in which we have citizens from right across the city attending that leisure centre on a daily basis," she said.
Ms Hargey said the council had received reports of intimidation at the site on Monday night, with the gates again closed off. She claimed firefighters were told they were not welcome when they responded to a small fire lit on the site.
"This is a concerning issue, it's a public safety issue," she said.
Alliance city councillor Emmet McDonough Brown said: "We will be moving in to clear the remaining materials as soon as a contractor and police are in a position to do so.
"Nobody can be surprised, we have been left with no alternative than to act in this way. This was never just about tyres in the bonfire - this was about other issues around damage to public property and private property. The fact this is a ratepayer-funded leisure centre which attracts people from across the community and those people have to be considered in this too.
"So I don't think it's fair to have a bonfire in a leisure centre which belongs to a public body."
Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann called for calm.
"I would appeal for calm heads over the coming days and for local communities not to act in any way that puts them on the wrong side of the law," he said.
"Young people ending up with criminal records for spur of the moment actions will not enhance anyone's cultural expression.
"Tensions across the country need to be lowered. Dialogue between local agencies and local communities is the way forward. I want to see people able to come out and enjoy bonfires over the next few days and it has to be done safely without threat to life or property."