Belfast Telegraph

'No formal meeting' between police and UVF over Avoniel bonfire

The bonfire at Avoniel
The bonfire at Avoniel

A senior PSNI officer has said that "no formal meetings" took place between police and the UVF over a controversial bonfire in Belfast.

Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd was speaking after claims that police met with Stephen Matthews during the dispute over a bonfire at Avoniel Leisure Centre.

Mr Matthews has been widely named as leader of the East Belfast UVF, a claim he strongly denies.

Loyalist activist Jamie Bryson told the BBC that Mr Matthews met with police as part of his role with the East Belfast Cultural Collective (EBCC) which represents a number of bonfires in the greater Belfast area.

Mr Todd said police had "not met with that individual as part of any formal set up" during the dispute over the bonfire, built on land owned by Belfast City Council.

The Assistant Chief Constable accepted that Mr Matthews may have had "chance" encounters with police as he attended a number of bonfires but rejected the claim there had been any meeting.

"There have been no formal meetings or scheduled meetings or diaried meetings between any senior member of this organisation and the individual you name to which I am aware of, and I have checked with all the local officers responsible," Mr Todd told BBC's Nolan Show.

"However, that individual has been present, along with others from the East Belfast Cultural Collective at a number of sites and will have come into contact with police officers as they go about their daily work.

"I don't style that as a meeting. It shouldn't be characterised as we're in some way in cahoots with that individual, that we're bending to their will or seeking their support.

"That can be a 'good morning' in the street; it can be 'hello, how are you;' it can be 'I didn't expect to see you here'."

Graffiti near the Avoniel bonfire site (PA)
Graffiti near the Avoniel bonfire site (PA)

In a statement released on Tuesday evening Mr Todd said that police would continue to target the East Belfast UVF.

"Since January this year, we have had significant success - 18 people arrested and 16 of them charged before the courts as a result of Paramilitary Crime Task Force operations targeting the East Belfast UVF," the Assistant Chief Constable said.

"We have also taken a significant quantity of drugs off the streets to protect our communities and seized a substantial amount of cash which has resulted from criminal activity. 

"We will continue to arrest members of the East Belfast UVFand we will continue to put them before the courts."

Mr Bryson, who also acts as as spokesperson for the EBCC, said that there was "never any suggestion" the PSNI had engaged with the UVF.

"That was the whole point, EBCC is not the UVF and the bonfire was run by the community, not any other organisation. PSNI engagement with EBCC was positive and hopefully those channels of communication can continue," he wrote on Twitter.

Councillors had voted to have bonfire material removed from the site but contractors engaged to carry out the work pulled out after threatening graffiti appeared near the leisure centre.

Last Wednesday Belfast City Council heard a warning from police that guns could be used during severe violence orchestrated by loyalist paramilitaries if the bonfire material was removed.

Council were warned that intelligence indicated "that any attempt by the council to remove bonfire material will cause a severe violent confrontation, orchestrated by the UVF".

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