A Stormont minister who launched an unsuccessful legal bid to force police in Northern Ireland to assist in removing a loyalist bonfire has said she is disappointed that agreement could not be reached to move it to a less contentious site.
SDLP Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon said residents close to the bonfire at Tiger’s Bay in north Belfast had been “attacked and abused” over a number of months.
But a DUP MLA has said that the legal challenge should never have come to court and accused the two ministers who brought the action of “squandering public money”.
Ms Mallon and Sinn Fein Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey launched proceedings against the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) over its decision not to intervene on the bonfire in the loyalist area of Tiger’s Bay in north Belfast.
The police declined to offer protection to removal contractors, citing concerns that their intervention could lead to disorder.
The ministers’ bid to compel the police to act failed at emergency High Court proceedings on Friday.
DUP ministers had earlier questioned the authority of the ministers to take legal action against the PSNI without the approval of the wider Executive.
The bonfire is now set to be lit on Sunday night as part of traditional “Eleventh Night” events.
Nationalist residents claim they are living in fear and have been attacked by missiles thrown by loyalist bonfire builders.
Loyalists have rejected suggestions the siting of the bonfire was deliberately provocative and have accused nationalists and republicans of whipping up tensions in an effort to deny them what they view as a legitimate celebration of their culture.
I’m disappointed for the New Lodge and Duncairn residents who have been attacked, abused and suffered disruption for the last number of months as this bonfire has been constructedNichola Mallon
Ms Mallon said: “Last night’s High Court ruling is, of course, a disappointing outcome following months of discussion to reach agreement on these issues to the benefit of local people.
“I reluctantly took the decision to challenge a police decision not to provide assistance after a long period of hard work and engagement aimed at securing a consensus on the way forward.
“I’m disappointed for the New Lodge and Duncairn residents who have been attacked, abused and suffered disruption for the last number of months as this bonfire has been constructed. Young children have experienced sectarian abuse, residents have had their homes pelted with golf balls and anti-social behaviour has been constant.”
She added: “This bonfire, however, on Department for Infrastructure land and at an interface has caused a litany of well documented problems. I am deeply disappointed that we have not been able to secure a community resolution that could have seen the bonfire continue at another site. Instead of enhancing goodwill between our communities, it has been diminished.
“We all have a duty to be better neighbours to one another, unfortunately to date that has not been the experience on this occasion.”
But DUP MLA William Humphrey for north Belfast said: “We are very pleased and relieved at the ruling, it is a case that frankly shouldn’t have been taken in the first place. We are pleased that the judge dismissed the case.
“The ministers have squandered taxpayers’ money on the case and really what they would be better placed doing is working with the community in Tiger’s Bay in developing the site, because the site has sat for many years and neither department has shown any interest in developing it.”
Mr Humphrey added: “Tensions were deliberately raised this year by people who were saying we should dial down the rhetoric, yet those same people were the people who were working with solicitors in terms of putting together court cases.
The reality is the bonfire is smaller than it has been in previous years, it has been moved back, there is nothing offensiveWilliam Humphrey MLA
“They were raising tensions and not giving proper responsible leadership to the community in north Belfast. The reality is the bonfire is smaller than it has been in previous years, it has been moved back, there is nothing offensive on the bonfire and it is a small, children’s bonfire.”
The Police Federation, which represents rank and file PSNI officers, said the court decision was good news because it meant police officers would not be “thrown into the middle”.
Chairman Mark Lindsay told the BBC: “I am very disappointed that two of the (Government) departments who should have had this issue sorted a year ago hadn’t (done so) … and, once again, we’re trying to throw police into a crisis they hadn’t sorted out.
“It’s really good news for our officers that they are not being thrown into the middle of what really is a horrendous situation for them.”
He added: “There’s been very hard-won relationships built in both those areas and I think that for policing to be thrown into the middle and to actually come toe-to-toe, if you like, fighting with people from those communities, is not good news for anybody.
“It’s certainly not good news for policing and definitely not good news for those communities.”
The road on Adam Street where the Tiger’s Bay bonfire has been built is owned by the Department of Infrastructure while an adjacent piece of land where building materials have been collected is owned by the Department of Communities.
The two departments had sought and secured the assistance of Belfast City Council (BCC) to remove the pyre.
However, in order for BCC contractors to carry out the operation, they needed protection from the PSNI.
The police have refused to do so, having made the assessment that an intervention would risk disorder, placing people congregating at the bonfire, including several children, at risk.
Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said: “I think it’s unfortunate that two Government ministers had to take the PSNI to court to try to get them to do their job, which is to uphold the law.
“There are families and communities that are under attack nightly. Certainly the residents I have spoken to are having golf balls or masonry thrown at their homes – that is not acceptable.
“There is no room for bonfires in interface areas, we need to show political leadership and dial down the rhetoric.”
Meanwhile, up to 70 bonfires will be lit on Saturday night as traditional “Eleventh Night” events begin.
There are 237 bonfires planned for across Northern Ireland this weekend as the “Eleventh Night” falls on a Sunday this year. A small number were lit on Friday, with the majority to be lit late on Sunday
The bonfires usher in the main date in the Protestant loyal order parading season – the Twelfth of July.
While the majority pass off each year without incident, some remain the source of community tension, with authorities previously having intervened to remove towering pyres on health and safety grounds.