Belfast bonfire organisers urged to leave leisure centre site

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By Rebecca Black, PA

Those behind a loyalist bonfire at an east Belfast leisure centre have been formally asked to leave the site.

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

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

Police then left the immediate scene but were maintaining 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.

"Belfast City Council has stated that anyone present within Avoniel Leisure Centre and its grounds will be regarded as trespassers, until the complex is reopened next week," she said.

"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.

Organisers said they hoped to light the bonfire as planned later.

The move came after a Belfast City Council committee voted earlier this week to send contractors in to remove material from a loyalist bonfire built in the car park of the leisure centre.

The council's Strategic Policy and Resources Committee met on Wednesday and agreed to stand by its decision.

The committee heard a warning from police that guns could be used during severe violence orchestrated by loyalist paramilitaries if the bonfire material is removed.

(PSNI officers with Robert Girvin (second left) of the East Belfast Cultural Collective, after a statement was read out by a Belfast City Council worker from inside a PSNI vehicle requesting that people on council property vacate the area.)

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 the 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.

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.

Robert Girvin, from the East Belfast Cultural Collective, described what happened 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.

"I am severely disappointed in Belfast City Council, I am severely disappointed in Emmet McDonough Brown who thinks this area is unsafe for him to come to which is absolute nonsense. This isn't Mogadishu, this is east Belfast.

"I am hoping now that sense can prevail, the bonfire is allowed to go ahead, everyone enjoys their culture."

(Two PSNI officers walking towards the 11th night bonfire at Avoniel Leisure Centre, after a statement was read out by a Belfast City Council worker from inside a PSNI vehicle requesting that people on council property vacate the area.)

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."

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.

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