Appeal for calm as High Court orders dangerous east Belfast bonfire to be reduced in height
A Belfast councillor has issued an "eleventh hour appeal" to organisers of a controversial bonfire in east Belfast after a court ordered the height of the massive pyre to be reduced to three metres.
In a ruling yesterday, the High Court said the Department for Infrastructure must take action amid claims the 80-pallet-high structure on Bloomfield Walkway was "out of control" and posed a serious threat to surrounding homes.
Late last night the NI Fire and Rescue service was at the scene after a small quantity of pallets was set alight metres away from the main bonfire.
A large group of youths remained nearby while firefighters extinguished the flames.
Two appliances arrived at the scene but only one was required for the operation.
Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers last night appealed to bonfire organisers to reduce the height themselves to avoid any confrontation.
"I've spoken to a lot of people in east Belfast and they're just concerned that if a contractor was to go in backed by the police it could lead to civil disorder," he said.
Mr Rodgers said he believed that taking the matter to the courts was a mistake.
"I don't think it really gets anywhere, it just gets people's backs up," he claimed.
"The last thing we need is widespread public disorder; all sorts of rumours are circulating about what could happen.
"It's important that people lead by example and I would ask the bonfire builders to seriously consider bringing the height of the bonfire down."
Mrs Justice Keegan's ruling came last night in emergency proceedings brought by Belfast City Council.
She said: "The balance is in favour of the more predictable risk to the public, of damage to life and property, if there's not something done about this bonfire, which is now out of control."
The order will apply unless any last-minute, community-based resolution is reached and agreed upon before it is due to be lit tonight.
Lawyers for the council took a case against the department over a failure to intervene and bring the bonfire being built on its land within limits recommended by Fire Service safety guidelines.
The court heard the bonfire was under the control of "sinister forces" within the east Belfast UVF, which is hampering efforts to resolve the issue.
Barrister Denise Kiley, for the council, said the structure in its current state towers over surrounding property and poses a significant risk to lives.
With up to 3,000 people expected to attend the Eleventh Night celebrations in the area, she argued that the bonfire was unpredictable and dangerous.
Up to 50 houses may have to be boarded up, and the Fire Service plans to take the unusual step of having an appliance pre-deployed at the scene, the court was told.
Philip McAteer, for the Department for Infrastructure, countered that any intervention by his client could lead to resistance and violence.
Based on available assessments, he said: "There's a possibility disorder could spread to other bonfire sites or to sectarian interfaces not only in Belfast but across Northern Ireland."
Mr McAteer added: "The department was stuck between a rock and a hard place, it did the best it could."
Delivering judgment, Mrs Justice Keegan expressed frustration that the issue of bonfires had ended up in court once again.
But she stressed that any potential unlawfulness should not be able to prevent steps taken to manage the identified risks.
"Damages are not an adequate remedy in circumstances where there's a risk to people's lives," she pointed out.
"In my view it was perfectly proper of the council to bring this matter to court."
Belfast City Council said the judge had to consider a number of factors.
These included elected representatives' concerns, community fear and apprehension as well as significant risk to property and life. "Belfast City Council recognises the huge effort made by council officers, councillors, mediators and community representatives in trying to resolve issues around bonfires this year," it said.
While welcoming progress after all parties in City Hall agreed to work to together, the council added the situation at Bloomfield Walkway "has continued to prove difficult".
Tim Attwood, the SDLP group leader at City Hall, said: "This is a significant decision by the High Court who have clearly accepted that the current bonfire, which is five times the safe height, is a serious and substantial risk to people's properties and homes.
"The Department for Infrasturcture must now urgently act to enforce this order and protect the homes of local residents."
PUP councillor John Kyle declined to comment on the ruling last night, but had warned earlier the bonfire presented "a real risk to life and property" if it was set alight.
He also called for the organisers to show "leadership and respect" by reducing the height.
However, the loyalist East Belfast Community Initiative (ECBI) said it was "extremely concerned" by the potential fallout from the judgment and said many felt it was a "gross judicial overreach".
"We have worked tirelessly to try and deliver workable and positive solutions. A fact even recognised by Belfast City Council in their latest statement," the group said.
"We regret the actions of Belfast City Council officers and a select number of elected representatives who have undermined community mediation in favour of an extremely provocative attempt to aggressively force a confrontation."
Alliance councillor Emmet McDonough-Brown welcomed the judgment and said he hoped the Department for Infrasturcture was "mindful of the potential threat to life and property" and would take appropriate action,
DUP MP for East Belfast Gavin Robinson was also contacted, but did not respond.