Council to move ahead with Avoniel bonfire removal - use of firearms by UVF 'cannot be ruled out'
Belfast councillors have reaffirmed their decision to remove all materials from a bonfire in east Belfast, which police say the UVF is involved in.
At a meeting of Belfast City Council's Strategic Policy and Resources Committee on Wednesday afternoon, councillors stood by their decision to remove materials from the pyre at Avoniel Leisure Centre.
In a leaked letter sent to the council by a senior PSNI officer, police warned of the potential for "violent confrontation" and gun violence "orchestrated by the UVF".
Speaking following the meeting, Alliance councillor Emmet McDonough-Brown, said the council is sticking by their decision to remove the bonfire.
“While this might have started out as a bid to protect their culture in some eyes, this has quickly descended into anarchy locally – with a leisure centre forced to close for days and a paramilitary organisation threatening violence as a response to anyone who questions the legality and safety of this bonfire," he said.
“While the tyres where removed, a number of other issues remain with this site – including the use of flags, the size of the bonfire and the impact on the Council to provide a key service through the centre.
“This is not about attacking culture, but ensuring people can celebrate culture in a safe and appropriate way – as others have done across Belfast – which is why the Alliance Party continues to support the Council’s preferred way forward of completely removing this bonfire through a contractor."
Barricades which were erected at the gates of the leisure centre were removed on Wednesday evening.
In a statement, a Belfast City Council spokesperson said they will be sending a letter of complaint to the PSNI regarding "aggravated trespass" at the site.
"The council also has a legal responsibility to protect against any threat to life, property or the environment. Over recent days, as a result of a bonfire being unlawfully constructed on the Council’s land at Avoniel, the leisure centre has been forced to close its doors to members of the public," they said.
"The gates to the centre have been forcibly closed and barricades put in place for substantial periods, and threats have been made against private contractors. This is wrong and unacceptable. The council has also not given consent to individuals occupying this site or for any other activities being carried on there.
"Today Members of the SP&R committee met to discuss the ongoing situation and reaffirmed its previous decision to remove all materials from the site.
"As a result of information received from the PSNI, Members also expressed concern about the involvement of the east Belfast UVF."
Sinn Fein council group leader Ciaran Beattie said unionist parties should now "show leadership" to ensure the removal of the bonfire.
“Community leisure centres should be a shared space in which everyone can feel comfortable," he said.
“It is therefore only right that these materials should be removed and I welcome the cross-party consensus within council which recognised that reality.
“We all have a right to celebrate culture in a dignified and respectful manner but the disruption and intimidation associated with this bonfire led to death threats being issued against council contractors and the leisure centre being closed for two days.
“There is nothing dignified, respectful or cultural about any of that.
“I want to place on the record my condemnation of this campaign of threats and the intimidation which has been orchestrated by the East Belfast UVF.
Earlier on Wednesday, bonfire builders said they will be holding a "cultural celebration" outside the leisure centre overnight on Wednesday.
They called on "loyalists across Northern Ireland" to attend and encouraged flute bands to play through the night.
On Monday and Tuesday, a majority of councillors voted to send in contractors to demolish the structure.
As a result, hundreds of loyalists protesters gathered at the site on Tuesday evening, vowing that the bonfire is "going nowhere".
Belfast Telegraph Digital