Belfast Council drops plan to remove Avoniel bonfires

Loyalists standing on the bonfire at Avoniel Leisure CentreImage copyright
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A bonfire has been built in the car park at Avoniel Leisure Centre

Belfast City Council has given up on its efforts to remove a bonfire at Avoniel Leisure Centre in east Belfast.

It now wants the police to investigate how the details of contractors due to remove it were leaked, and later appeared on graffiti close to the bonfire site.

The decision was made at an emergency meeting on Thursday.

Bonfires are lit in some Protestant areas in Northern Ireland on 11 July, ahead of the Twelfth of July marches.

Earlier on Thursday, the council warned that anyone on the leisure centre’s grounds they would be regarded as trespassers.

A council official told people on the site they were engaged in “aggravated trespass”, said bonfire organisers, who intend to light the fire later on Thursday.

Police on Wednesday told the council the loyalist paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was involved with the bonfire, warning there was a risk of “serious violence” if council workers tried to dismantle it.

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The gates at Avoniel Leisure Centre were open on Wednesday after a barricade was removed

But the organisers rejected that, saying there would be “no violence on this site from any quarter”.

The council said on Thursday that anyone in the grounds of Avoniel Leisure Centre would be “regarded as trespassers until the complex is reopened next week”.

“[The] 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,” it added.

‘No intent to move against bonfire’

The bonfire organisers said a council official in the back of a police vehicle official read a statement warning about the trespassing on Thursday morning.

Robert Girvin, from a group calling itself the East Belfast Cultural Collective, which represents a number of bonfire builders, said it was a “community bonfire”.

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Tyres were removed from the bonfire and the builders said it was reduced in size

“We’ve been assured there’s no intentions at the moment to move against the bonfire,” he added.

“I would sincerely hope Belfast City Council has come to their senses… regarding this bonfire.”

BBC News NI understands the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said in its letter to the council that any violence would be “controlled by the east Belfast UVF” and it “could not rule out a risk from firearms”.

Loyalist graffiti had appeared next to the site at Avoniel Leisure Centre, threatening contractors alleged to be involved in the removal of bonfire material.

On Wednesday evening, the PSNI’s Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton said officers were ready to assist the council or its contractor to remove bonfire materials.

“I would urge people to heed the calls from the community and not to engage in any violent or criminal behaviour,” he added.

‘Attempts to compromise’

Tensions have been building ahead of bonfires being lit across Northern Ireland ahead of the Twelfth of July.

It is the main date in the Protestant Orange Order marching season, commemorating the 1690 Battle of the Boyne.

Most fires are lit without major incident but some prove contentious, with the authorities having taken action in recent years on bonfires deemed unsafe and posing a threat to nearby properties.

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Hundreds of people attended a protest at the Avoniel bonfire on Tuesday

On Tuesday night, hundreds of people gathered outside Avoniel Leisure Centre to protest against the council decision to remove the bonfire.

It came after Belfast City Council said its initial decision to remove bonfire material at Avoniel Leisure Centre had not changed.

Belfast councillors met again on Wednesday and decided to go ahead with plans to remove it.

Protesters said they tried to compromise with authorities but were determined that the event would go ahead on Thursday night.

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A large crowd of people watched as the Drumilly Green bonfire was lit on Wednesday night

It is estimated there are between 80 and 100 bonfires in Belfast this year, with 35 signed up to an official scheme funded by the council.

In County Armagh, a large crowd watched as another controversial bonfire was lit on Wednesday night.

The Drumilly Green bonfire in Portadown was built close to flats, causing a housing association to advise dozens of residents to leave their homes due.

Hundreds of windows were boarded up to protect them from the heat of the blaze and fire service sprayed two of the nearby blocks of flats with foam to keep them cool.

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