Hundreds gather for protest over council decision on Avoniel bonfire
Hundreds of people have gathered in east Belfast to protest a decision by Belfast City Council to remove material from a bonfire at Avoniel Leisure Centre.
The gates of the leisure the gates were barricaded on Tuesday afternoon, following the decision by the council's Strategic Policy and Resources Committee at City Hall to intervene at the Avoniel bonfire site.
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.
Graffiti threatening contractors also appeared on a wall close to the leisure centre.
Bonfire builders voluntarily removed tyres from the structure after the initial decision on Monday.
On Tuesday morning they met with police to urge them not to intervene and remove more materials insisting the bonfire was safe.
Sinn Fein, however, has said the bonfire risked damage to the leisure centre.
Speaking at Tuesday's protest, Robert Girvin of the East Belfast Cultural Collective, which represents bonfire builders, said the Avionel pyre is "going nowhere".
"This bonfire is going nowhere. This bonfire is being lit. I give you a guarantee - there will be a bonfire here on the Eleventh. We will be there to celebrate our culture - not defend it," he said.
Loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson urged supporters of the bonfire to protest peacefully.
"This bonfire poses no risk to property, no risk to life and the people who have built it have done everything asked of them to ensure it will be peaceful and a positive celebration of culture," he said.
"There is no need to move into this bonfire. There is no legal necessity to move into this bonfire."
Orange Order Grand Secretary, the Reverend Mervyn Gibson, said: "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 do so in a way that's respectful, we do so in a way that doesn't antagonise.
"That's the best response we can give to the council who oppose us."
Unionists on the council said they were disappointed the committee chose not to build on the progress made by the tyre removal.
A statement in the names of DUP Councillor George Dorrian, PUP Councillor John Kyle and UUP Councilor Jim Rodgers urged those "angered by the decision not to respond in a negative way which serves only to undermine the arguments made by unionist representatives at today's and previous committee meetings".
UUP leader Robin Swann said "calm heads must prevail".
"Young people ending up with criminal records for spur of the moment actions will not enhance anyone’s cultural expression," he said.
“Tensions across the country need to be lowered. Dialogue between local agencies and local communities is the way forward. I want to see people able to come out and enjoy bonfires over the next few days and it has to be done safely without threat to life or property.”
Sinn Fein councillor Deirdre Hargey said site assessments from statutory agencies reported that the bonfire posed a "significant risk" to nearby property
"As a council and public authority on which this bonfire is situated on our land we have to react to that for the public interest," she said.
She said concerns were wider than just the tyres.
"This is just a story that is being spun - this is about the proximity of that bonfire, the scale and the massing of that bonfire next to a leisure centre within the car park of a leisure centre in which we have citizens from right across the city attending that leisure centre on a daily basis."
The decision to clear materials at Avoniel was never just about tyres. It was about:— Emmet McDonough-Brown (@EmmetMcDB) July 9, 2019
1) risk of damage to council facilities
2) flags which were erected
3) potential damage to neighbouring private property
None of these have been addressed. We re-affirmed our intervention today
Ms Hargey said the council had received reports of intimidation at the site on Monday night, with the gates again closed off. She claimed firefighters were told they were not welcome when they responded to a small fire lit on the site.
"This is a concerning issue, it's a public safety issue," she said.
Following Tuesday afternoon's meeting a council spokeswoman said: "Today Members of the SP&R committee met again to discuss a number of bonfire sites.
"In relation to Avoniel, the outcome was to adhere to the original decision of the committee.
"Efforts have been ongoing for several months to encourage bonfire builders to be mindful of the need to protect life and property."
She added: "The committee also made it clear that any acts aimed at intimidating elected representatives or public officials are unacceptable and should be condemned."
Belfast Telegraph Digital