Legal challenge fails after PSNI admit they cannot guarantee the safety of contractors
Two Stormont ministers last night failed in a High Court bid to have police forced to help in the removal of a controversial loyalist bonfire in north Belfast.
The action brought by Nichola Mallon and Deirdre Hargey was dismissed after a judge sitting in an earlier emergency case refused to direct PSNI officers to intervene at the Tigers Bay site.
Separate proceedings had been issued on behalf of a woman whose home in the nationalist New Lodge is just across a peace line from the bonfire location.
It came after the Belfast Telegraph revealed a PSNI security assessment warned there was a risk firearms may be used against officers and contractors if they moved in to remove the material at the Tigers Bay site.
The bonfire, at an interface area, has been the subject of political disagreement, with Ms Mallon, the Infrastructure Minister, and Ms Hargey, the Communities Minister, seeking an injunction to force police to give protection to contractors hired to remove material from the site.
In a letter to the two ministers, Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said while planning was continuing in case police were ordered by the court to assist in the operation “we cannot, in all the circumstances, absolutely guarantee the safety of your contractors whilst on site”.
“In light of this and without a reasonable prospect of safely removing the children from the bonfire my assessment is that the current request for assistance is impracticable,” ACC Todd added.
The fire is now expected to be lit tomorrow as planned despite opposition from nationalist residents and the two government departments responsible for the land.
Unionists, including DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who visited the Adam Street bonfire this week, said the bonfire should go ahead. UUP leader and TUV leader Jim Allister also voiced their support.
As the row continued, boxer Carl Frampton urged people to respect “all cultures” and called for a peaceful Twelfth. He said attacks from the bonfire into the New Lodge “are wrong and need to stop”, but said there were positive signs in that “flags, effigies and posters” have not been displayed on the pyre.
Belfast City Council had agreed to provide the services of a contractor to access the site to dismantle the bonfire. To complete the work, the contractors required the assistance of the PSNI to remove any individuals around the fire, however this request was refused due to the danger this would pose to local people, including children.
In a letter to the Ministers, ACC Todd said “at this point in time, the bonfire itself appears to constantly be occupied by children in or on the pyre.
“Clearly those children would need to be removed ahead of any attempt to dismantle the bonfire and to remove the material. This is not a circumstance where there are any straightforward or easy tactical options for contractors, nor indeed, police even if there was a clear basis in criminal law for doing so.
“It is also our assessment, based on previous experience, if a tactical option to remove the children cannot be found, the operation is unlikely to be able to proceed.
“Secondly, police have significant amounts of intelligence to suggest any attempted intervention will be met with resistance on the site from people from within the local community, including women and children, who will attempt to obstruct and/or resist both contractors and police.
“Such action, in combination with other aspects of the site, would undoubtedly delay any contractor operation, significantly increase tensions and likely lead to disorder.
“This would, in turn, likely require use of force by police, requiring careful necessity and proportionality considerations, particularly in respect of the presence of children.
“Thirdly, police hold intelligence that any attempted intervention on the site, will likely lead to wider disorder. Intelligence suggests significant numbers of ‘petrol bombs’ are available and arrangements in place to mobilise significant numbers of people in response to any removal operation.
“This is further complicated by what is currently untested intelligence, which we are seeking to further develop, indicating a firearms risk in respect of contractors and police operating on the site. We assess that attitudes within the local community continue to harden, further increasing the risks.”
The dire assessment by police means the bonfire is now expected to go ahead with sources saying senior officers are “standing firm” against any request to move into the site.
Meanwhile, in the Glenbryn area of north Belfast, utility workers were forced to redirect the gas supply after a bonfire was built on top of the main gas supply to the area. The precautionary measure was taken by Phoenix Gas who sent engineers to cut off the supply running under the fire and temporarily redirect it.