Belfast Telegraph

Belfast leisure centre closed after group of men 'intimidate' staff

Avoniel Leisure Centre in east Belfast.
Avoniel Leisure Centre in east Belfast.
Gareth Cross

By Gareth Cross

A Belfast leisure centre has been forced to close after a group of men blocked the entrance on Sunday morning.

The Avoniel Leisure Centre closed early after staff and members of the public felt "threatened and intimidated" by the incident.

Lisnasharragh SDLP councillor Seamas De Faoite said that staff arrived on Sunday morning to open the council-owned facility when they found the entranceway blocked off with debris.

He said that it was "made clear to staff" by the men that the centre would not be opened.

Staff eventually entered the premises through a pedestrian entrance and opened the facility to the public.

However, Councillor De Faoite said a decision was taken to close the facility at around 12.30pm due to staff and members of the public feeling threatened and intimidated.

The centre is run by GLL on behalf of Belfast City Council and usually opens from 10am-4pm on Sundays.

A bonfire has been built in the car park of the east Belfast facility ahead of the Eleventh night celebrations.

Bonfires have been held in the car park for a number of years.

Earlier this week a number of UVF flags were erected in the car park of the leisure centre.

Pallets stored at Avoniel Leisure Centre car park ahead of July 11
Pallets stored at Avoniel Leisure Centre car park ahead of July 11

A decision has yet to be taken on whether the centre will open as normal on Monday morning.

Belfast City Council are understood to be liaising with the PSNI on the issue.

A PSNI spokesperson said that police were informed by a member of the public at 12.30pm that the leisure centre gates had been blocked off and the facility closed to the public.

"Police attended and will make follow up enquiries with the relevant authorities in due course," the spokesperson said.

In a statement released on Sunday evening the East Belfast Cultural Collective, which represents a number of bonfires, said that "young bonfire builders had panicked" due to rumours that bonfire material was to be taken from the site and closed the gate.

A spokesman denied that anyone was threatened or intimidated at the leisure centre.

Avoniel bonfire
Avoniel bonfire

Councillor De Faoite said that the actions by the group of men were "highly concerning" as well as being "illegitimate and illegal".

"We owe a duty of care to staff and customers at this facility not to put them in harm's way," the SDLP councillor said.

"This is the kind of thing you would expect to happen in 1974, not 2019.

"These facilities are there for the use of the community and families, for anyone to make them feel threatened is totally unacceptable."

DUP MLA Joanne Bunting said that the "disgraceful behaviour is completely counter-productive".

"As usual, the people who suffer are the ordinary folks of east Belfast," the East Belfast MLA said.

Her comments were echoed by DUP East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson who said staff should "not be subjected to criminal behaviour".

DUP Councillor George Dorrian said he was happy to liaise with the groups and agencies involved, but that bonfire builders "should be realistic".

Alliance leader Naomi Long described the situation as "absolutely disgraceful".

"This is what results when people break the law with impunity year after year," the MEP said.

Sinn Fein councillor Ciaran Beattie called on unionist politicians to "show leadership" following the incident.

"This behaviour is absolutely reprehensible and has no place in our city and society," he said.

Green Party councillor Anthony Flynn said the incident was a "sinister development" with "all the hallmarks of paramilitary intimidation".

“The leisure centre is a community asset and it’s clear that those behind this are anti community and self serving," the Ormiston councillor said.

Belfast City Council has been contacted in relation to this story.

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