Loyalist paramilitaries building unsafe bonfires, claims Belfast pastor
An east Belfast cleric whose church is under threat from a towering Eleventh Night bonfire just yards from the property's back door has claimed that loyalist paramilitaries are orchestrating and directing the building of contentious bonfires.
Pastor Lucas Parks, whose grandfather was an Orangeman, was speaking after fire officers boarded up the rear windows of his church to protect it from the bonfire at Ravenscroft Avenue car park on the Bloomfield Walkway after it is lit tonight.
The bonfire is one of four which are the subject of an injunction issued on behalf of Belfast City Council, who say they want to limit their size. The others are at Cregagh, Sydenham and Avoniel. Pastor Parks, who was born here but spent many years in America, said that five families who live in a nearby apartment block have moved out of their homes because they fear their dwellings could be engulfed in flames by the Ravenscroft bonfire.
And he said that when he approached the bonfire builders three months ago with a plea to move it he was met with a volley of obscenities.
"I couldn't repeat what they told me. Some of them were in their 20s, some of them were as young as six or seven years old," added Pastor Parks, whose Village Church congregation moved into a building on the Upper Newtownards Road formerly occupied by Bloomfield Baptists 18 months ago.
The church is directly opposite Alliance Party offices which were to be closed today and which were the target for loyalist protesters at the height of the Union flag dispute at the City Hall.
The pastor said he knew that some residents were too terrified to say anything about the bonfire, adding that it was frustrating that unionist politicians weren't taking a more pro-active role.
Asked if he was afraid of reprisals, Pastor Parks said: "Somebody has to be the voice for justice and for people who are afraid to speak out. It's been the Christian tradition to do that for thousands of years."
He said his main concern was over the safety dangers posed by the bonfire which he added was being constructed by many people who didn't even live in the immediate Bloomfield area.
"These guys aren't out here on their own. They're being directed by other people including the paramilitaries and everyone knows that. Yet nothing seems to be done about it," he said.
Pastor Parks said he wasn't a killjoy, adding: "What worries me is that the bonfire is a lot bigger than any of the ones here in the past.
"I'm not trying to do away with culture or anything like that, but bonfires should be in big fields or open spaces not on a public site so close to buildings and where taxpayers are going to have to pay for someone to re-surface the car park and repair the overhead lighting.
"Today the council had to pay for contractors to come out and board up all our church windows at the back of our building.
"And the fire service have told us that they are going to be here on the Eleventh Night to spray water on our roof and on other nearby buildings like houses, apartments, an electrical sub-station, commercial businesses and a community centre," the pastor said.
The Bloomfield bonfire was at the centre of a recent row after it emerged that Belfast City Council removed hundreds of pallets from the area for storage but they were later stolen. After it was rebuilt, the bonfire was set alight shortly afterwards.
Pastor Parks said he wasn't trying to score political points on the controversy and confusion which has been raging about the council's High Court injunction over the Ravenscroft Avenue bonfire and the three others in east Belfast.
Legal expert Joshua Rozenberg told Radio Ulster's Talkback programme that the injunction was ambiguous and poorly-written and he added it wasn't clear if it meant that the four bonfires couldn't be lit or if the intention was to stop people building them any higher.
A council spokesman said the injunction was obtained to preserve public safety and to minimise damage to property with its main purpose to stop more materials reaching the four bonfire sites. The council added that the injunction "does not make any specific reference to the lighting of the bonfire".
Sinn Fein welcomed the injunction and called on the council to send in contractors to remove materials from the four sites. But sources close to the council said that a huge number of contractors had rejected approaches from the council over the bonfires.
"They clearly feel the risk about moving in is too great," added the source.
There was no PSNI presence at any of the four bonfire sites when they were visited by the Belfast Telegraph yesterday.
A number of people were at all four bonfires and several said they were unsure of what they could and couldn't do.
At Ravenscoft Avenue, at mid-day yesterday three loyalist flags flew on top of the bonfire which consisted of at least 147 layers of pallets and organisers said they weren't building it any higher.
But Pastor Parks said if it toppled over 'there could be a disaster'. Even so, hundreds of people gathered at the foot of the bonfire for what was called a family fun day with bouncy castles and slides for children whose parents clearly had no concerns over any potential risks to their families.
A spokeswoman for a Bloomfield community group said the fun day was aimed at giving people in the area an enjoyable and relaxed run-up to the Eleventh Night and the Twelfth.
But she wouldn't comment on the size and scale of the bonfire. And she wouldn't give her name, claiming that a young man who had gone public in the area last week had received a string of death threats. High above the festivities, a sign on the bonfire read 'F*** the council'.
Unionist politicians who had been challenged by loyalist Jamie Bryson to distance themselves from the injunction were conspicuous by their absence from any of the sites. And many of them also threw up a wall of silence over whether or not they had supported the injunction, claiming they were constrained in what they could say because of a council code of conduct.
Sources have said the vote in favour of the injunction was unanimous.
Independent unionist councillor Jolene Bunting attacked unionists who backed the injunction. "They are falling into Sinn Fein's trap and they aren't standing up for unionist people," she said.
One unionist councillor, who didn't want to be identified, told the Belfast Telegraph: "This is a no-win situation for us. We are damned if we do speak out and damned if we don't."
In a joint statement yesterday the DUP and PUP leaders on the council accused Sinn Fein of waging a cultural war. Cllrs Lee Reynolds and Billy Hutchinson said Sinn Fein were engaged in a "clear strategy" to discredit demean and devalue celebrations around the Twelfth.
Some Sinn Fein election posters were sitting on top of several bonfires in Belfast yesterday including one for the party's unsuccessful Westminster candidate in North Belfast John Finucane, whose solicitor father Pat was murdered by the UDA in 1989.
At the Avoniel leisure centre car park off the Albertbridge Road another sign on a bonfire had a four-letter word message for the BBC as well as for Belfast City Council. Several men had clambered to the top of the bonfire and passers-by voiced their support for it. "What harm is it doing here?" asked one woman. "Yes, the one at Ravenscroft Avenue is scary. But this one is well away from any buildings."
One man said he couldn't see the point of the council injunction which he added was like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
"There's no way in this world that anyone is going to move in to take away the bonfires. If that did happen the whole of east Belfast would go up," he added.
At Inverary Playing Fields off the Holywood Road there were similar sentiments. The bonfire there is in the middle of playing fields. "And there are no houses anywhere near it," said one woman. "The injunction is daft."
The fourth bonfire which was included in the council injunction is only a few hundred yards away from the Orange Order's headquarters and heritage museum on the Cregagh Road
The building of it hadn't even started by yesterday afternoon, leading local loyalists to question what risks the council think it is presenting and why it was included in the injunction.
One of six young men who stood aimlessly beside materials destined for the bonfire said: "Nobody has told us anything about what's going on. But while other bonfires are big, nobody could say the same about ours. It's going to be tiny."
However, one neighbour in Cregagh Park East said: "I'll be glad if t hey don't light the bonfire. It is totally out of keeping with this area. "