Council axes plan to remove bonfire at Belfast Leisure Centre

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By Rebecca Black, PA

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.

(PSNI officers escort a Belfast City Council worker in a PSNI vehicle to read out a statement requesting that those on council property vacate the area at Avoniel Leisure Centre, where an 11th night bonfire has been erected.)

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.

"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.

DUP councillor George Dorrian said: "What we wanted was a positive outcome to this situation, we certainly didn't want anything to be inflamed or any confrontation with the police or council.

"We think this is sensible way forward. We don't have contractors in place and that's the reality of where we are.

"We want to take this forward and already look towards a more positive bonfire season and cultural celebrations."

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Belfast City Council's Strategic Policy & Resources Committee (SP&R) said: "Members were updated that a PSNI investigation is under way at Avoniel Leisure Centre following a complaint of aggravated trespass.

"Members agreed to establish an all-party working group, reporting to the SP&R committee, to put in place a framework to achieve more effective management of bonfires.

"They also expressed a need for further robust dialogue with other agencies on the issue of bonfires, including concerns around the involvement of paramilitaries in some cases.

"The committee reiterated its support for the PSNI to take action against those committing and orchestrating aggravated trespass at Avoniel.

"Members again expressed their concern about the involvement of the east Belfast UVF in the unlawful occupation of the Avoniel site."

A number of bonfire builders were spotted putting tyres into a van shortly after the council released a statement.

Robert Girvin, from the East Belfast Cultural Collective, said he was "glad" at the council's decision, however he criticised a decision to pursue prosecutions.

He added: "This is a public park, there's a child's playground here and football pitches. Are they going to prosecute the people of Avoniel for using Avoniel Leisure Centre?

"Pettiness in the extreme. It's just getting daft.

"There's a relief on behalf of the community but even if the police had moved in here there would have been disappointment and frustration but there would have been no violence.

"Alliance and Sinn Fein are denying children the use of a play park.

"Unless the UVF is 70-year-old grannies and 12-year-old children, there's no UVF involvement here."

Sinn Fein councillor Ciaran Beattie said he was "disappointed".

"Belfast Council made a democratic decision to remove all bonfire materials from that site," he said.

"This site has been occupied for a number of days now, illegally. We have informed anyone on that site they need to remove themselves, they are trespassing.

"It's disappointing that the contractors have been threatened and the threat has came through to the council, from the police, to say the east Belfast UVF have threatened contractors and possibly with the use of firearms which is a very worrying situation.

"This bonfire is illegal, it's a council leisure facility. It's been occupied, the gates have been barricaded, there's been UVF flags put up around the site, a bonfire has been put in the car park without permission.

"This council still stands firm this is an illegal bonfire."

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.

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."

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."

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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