Belfast Telegraph

Bonfire is here to stay, say hundreds gathered at Avoniel in Belfast

Loyalists make their feelings known at the Avoniel bonfire in east Belfast
Loyalists make their feelings known at the Avoniel bonfire in east Belfast
Loyalists make their feelings known at the Avoniel bonfire in east Belfast
Loyalists make their feelings known at the Avoniel bonfire in east Belfast
Loyalists make their feelings known at the Avoniel bonfire in east Belfast
Activist Jamie Bryson
Lauren Harte

By Lauren Harte

Hundreds of loyalist protesters sent a clear message to Belfast City Council last night that the bonfire at Avoniel Leisure Centre in the east of the city was "going nowhere".

A rally against planned intervention was held amid mounting tensions over the council's decision to remove the bonfire built in the car park.

A crowd of around 400 gathered at the barricaded gates of the leisure centre where Robert Girvin of the East Belfast Cultural Collective, which represents bonfire builders, said the Avoniel pyre would be lit.

"This bonfire is going nowhere and is being lit. I give you a guarantee that there will be a bonfire here on the Eleventh. We will be there to celebrate our culture, not defend it," he added.

Jamie Bryson, who also represents the bonfire builders, said there was no community or political support for its removal.

"This bonfire poses no risk to life or property and those who have built it have done everything to ensure that it will be peaceful and a positive celebration of culture," he added.

Despite what he called the "palpable anger" in the area, Orange Order Grand Secretary Rev Mervyn Gibson appealed for calm and urged people to go out and enjoy their culture.

"Our response should be, 'Let's get out and enjoy our bonfires and enjoy the Twelfth of July'.

"But we do so in a way that doesn't antagonise and is respectful to others. That's the best response we can give to the council who oppose us."

Afterwards a handful of young people gathered on top of the pile of pallets waving an Ulster flag while a group of women formed a human chain around it in a show of solidarity.

There was a low-key police presence a few streets away from the protest while a PSNI helicopter hovered overhead. As on Sunday, the gates of Avoniel were again barricaded yesterday in a pre-emptive bid to prevent police and contractors accessing the site, forcing the centre to close early for the day.

Industrial bins and tyres were placed in front and behind them and a secondary barricade - made up of tyres - was built further into the car park entrance.

Earlier, Belfast city councillors reaffirmed their decision to send contractors, under police escort, to take down the bonfire.

A council committee had reconvened to reassess the situation following a move by the bonfire builders on Monday evening to remove hundreds of tyres from the bonfire.

The decision remained unchanged, with a council spokeswoman saying the authority was acting in the interests of protecting life and property. However, unionist parties in the council, which were in the minority on the committee, expressed disappointment at the decision.

Hours beforehand, representatives of the bonfire builders met at Musgrave Street police station to urge them not to intervene to support the removal of the bonfire. They have also appealed for councillors to hold direct talks with loyalists.

They insisted taking away the tyres has rendered the bonfire safe and warned its demolition would be unjustified and could lead to tensions spilling over.

Meanwhile in Portadown, Co Armagh, residents of three apartment blocks in the Corcrain area have been urged to evacuate their homes due to concerns about the size of the nearby bonfire.

It is understood Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council has been unable to secure a contractor willing to take down the bonfire, having approached more than 35 companies.

Sinn Fein councillor Paul Duffy strongly criticised the local authority's decision.

"We all have a right to live free from fear and intimidation in our homes, but this council is failing dismally in its duty to protect ratepayers and uphold its legal responsibilities," he said.

Alliance said the council had decided not to intervene, "given the timeframe for safe removal has now passed".

"I call on the builders of this bonfire to exercise responsibility and recognise the impact this may cause. They need to reduce the bonfire dramatically or remove it entirely," added Alliance councillor Peter Lavery.

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