Loyalists urged to abandon efforts to rebuild bonfires in Belfast

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By Michael McHugh, PA

Loyalists should abandon efforts to rebuild bonfires and stick to the coronavirus regulations, an influential clergyman in east Belfast has said.

The Rev Mervyn Gibson, from Westbourne Presbyterian Church, acknowledged public anger following alleged social distancing breaches during the Bobby Storey funeral.

He said his community cared too much about Northern Ireland to risk everyone's health by restoring Eleventh Night pyres.

Mr Gibson added: "We do not want to mimic their bad behaviour."

He said, speaking personally, whatever was done had to be restricted to 30 people under the regulations to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Mr Gibson said: "I think that will be difficult for bonfires to do but there is anger in the community about what happened at the recent funeral."

Some within loyalism have issued guidance suggesting any bonfires should be "small and localised".

Public health advice on restricting the size of gatherings has helped drive down the rate of infection.

Last week, hundreds of people lined the road in west Belfast for the funeral of former IRA figure and senior republican Bobby Storey, who backed Sinn Fein's peace process efforts.

Many across society accused republicans of flouting social distancing guidelines.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill has faced calls to step aside from the other four leaders of the Stormont parties after her attendance.

Police are still investigating and Mr Gibson predicted those responsible would be held accountable for any alleged breaches.

He added: "We care about Northern Ireland.

"We care about the people of Northern Ireland.

"Republicans have always wanted to destroy this state and their gathering the other day showed disregard for everyone's health.

"I would appeal to people not to follow their example."

First Minister Arlene Foster and Health Minister Robin Swann have repeatedly reminded people the pandemic is still present and they needed to follow official regulations.

Mr Gibson added: "I would call upon everyone to do so."

The PSNI reiterated its advice.

A police spokesman said: "We are still in the midst of the Covid 19 pandemic and we would urge everyone in our communities to continue to abide by the health protection regulations to ensure their own safety and the safety of others and to prevent further spread of the Covid-19 virus.

"It is vital that everyone follows the advice and direction from the Department of Health and Northern Ireland Executive."

A series of loyalist bonfire sites in Belfast were cleared earlier this year after Eleventh Night fires were cancelled due to the pandemic - for the first time since the Second World War.

The East Belfast Cultural Collective said it represented bonfire builders in east Belfast, Newtownards and North Down.

It added: "We will not be seeking to stop young loyalists collecting material in the short period of time remaining in order to have small, localised events on July 11.

"To seek to prevent such events, when neither the law nor guidance prohibits them, would be to exercise coercive control.

"We are not prepared to do that.

"However, we are issuing very clear guidance which in our view strikes a fair balance."

The guidance said bonfires should be small and localised, positioned to keep property safe and not include tyres or other rubbish.

It urged participants to adhere to public health regulations, seek to ensure social distancing and prevent anti-social behaviour.

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