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Belfast residents living in fear as pallets stacked for another huge bonfire

Politicians speak out as loyalists continue preparations for massive blaze despite promising no repeat of the 50ft fire that last year forced evacuation of homes

By Suzanne Breen

Fears are growing for the safety of residents and their homes as another potentially huge bonfire is being built near Chobham Street in east Belfast.

Last year, residents had to be evacuated from their homes, which were boarded up as a massive bonfire was lit on the Eleventh Night.

The Fire Service hosed down properties at risk of going up in flames as the 50-foot pyre was set ablaze dangerously close to houses.

Pledges were made that such scenes would not be repeated this year, with a play park being built on the wasteground where the bonfire had been located.

However, last night loyalists were stacking pallets on land, owned by the council, right beside the new park.

The Belfast Telegraph has been told that hundreds more pallets, in storage nearby, will be added in the coming days.

The material is being stacked around 15ft from houses in Lena Street, which runs next to Chobham Street.

Local people have contacted the council demanding that they remove the material immediately. However, council sources said they did not believe this would happen because there would be a difficulty in finding contractors willing to do the job.

They said they hoped that this year's bonfire would be smaller.

Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers said: "We cannot have a repeat of the scenes we witnessed last year.

"A number of residents have been in contact with myself and my council colleagues expressing fears that they'd either have to move out of their homes or have their windows blocked up in the same way as last year.

"These people cannot be put through all that again. There are old people living in flats in Ravenscroft Avenue and we are also concerned about damage the bonfire may do to the new play park."

Mr Rodgers, who was born and bred in the area, said he was not opposed to bonfires. "People should be free to express their culture, but it must be done in a responsible fashion," he added.

"This should be a time of celebration and festivity, not one in which residents face such worries. I will continue talking to council staff to see what can be done."

SDLP councillor Declan Boyle called for swift action from the authorities. "We spent more than £10,000 hoarding up houses last year, and it took six fire appliances and 35 firefighters to monitor the bonfire and hose down properties," he said.

"That was a terrible waste of resources, and at a time when public funds are already over-stretched, any repeat would be unacceptable.

"The situation was allowed to drift last year and we must not meander into allowing a dangerous bonfire to be staged again.

"Nobody objects to a safe celebration but, if it is clear that material being gathered will pose a risk to people or property on the Eleventh Night, it must be removed - and removed now.

"It would be ludicrous to risk damaging a play park just built with public money."

Alliance councillor Michael Long expressed serious concerns about the situation and called for the PSNI to take action.

"Last July, some people were forced out of their homes and a ridiculous level of protection had to be taken to stop other properties burning down," he said. "We were told back then that would be the end of it, but now residents appear to be facing the same inconvenience again.

"I visited the bonfire last Eleventh Night and saw election posters of my wife burning on it. I reported that to police as a hate crime. It is time the police took action against these kind of people."

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