Belfast Telegraph

No winners in Avoniel bonfire dispute and threats must be condemned, says Orange Order's Mervyn Gibson

Paramilitaries part of Northern Ireland communities, says minister

Orange Order grand secretary Mervyn Gibson addresses supporters of the bonfire at Avoniel leisure centre (Liam McBurney/PA)
Orange Order grand secretary Mervyn Gibson addresses supporters of the bonfire at Avoniel leisure centre (Liam McBurney/PA)
Jonathan Bell

By Jonathan Bell

Orange Order grand secretary Mervyn Gibson has said there were no winners in the Avoniel bonfire dispute and threats had to be condemned.

He said paramilitaries were part of Northern Ireland communities and "we had to deal with them day after day".

Rev Gibson was a prominent figure in the dispute between the bonfire builders and the council which attempted to remove the pyre from its land at the leisure centre. When the council opted to pursue the matter he urged for a peaceful response from the community.

A 'cultural celebration' was held with bouncy castles and marching bands descending on the location to show support for the bonfire. At one stage women and children formed a ring around the bonfire.

PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne said using women and children as a human shield was a “cynical ploy” by the east Belfast UVF. He acknowledged it was a factor in the PSNI’s ultimate decision not to move in against the bonfire builders.

Rev Gibson said he wouldn't condemn those to who were there to enjoy the bonfire and he didn't think women or children were used as a shield.

"I was there to make sure there was no violence to encourage people not to resort to violence and if the police came in to allow them to come in," he told the BBC Sunday Politics.

"I think that worked.

"There may have been other influences there. I wasn't involved with those influences I was there to help keep the peace and thankfully the peace was kept."

Rev Gibson said he was in no doubt other influences were involved other than the local community.

A graffiti covered wall near the Avoniel bonfire site in Befast.
A graffiti covered wall near the Avoniel bonfire site in Befast.

"Of course it is sinister but be honest every community has paramilitaries in them republican, loyalist. They are part of those communities, they are active in those communities and we have to deal with them day after day.

"If UVF tried to use the bonfire I would condemn it."

Earlier in the week Rev Gibson described the council's efforts to remove the bonfire as being "spiteful, vindicative and obsessive".

He said he was right to make the comment saying the council appeared intent to get the win on the issue.

"I don't think there was a winner in the end because tensions were raised. Thankfully it went off peacefully but now we have to build relationships again and move forward."

Over the week threats purporting to identify those contractors employed by the council to remove the bonfire material appeared on walls around the area. The graffiti has yet to be removed and the council has asked the police to investigate.

Rev Gibson said he was not ignoring police claims of UVF involvement.

"Of course there are other elements there. Republicans, Sinn Fein indeed for some time have a thing about the UVF in east Belfast," he said.

"And there is a UVF in east Belfast. There are elements of that UVF which are involved in criminality and I condemn that completely.

The bonfire at Avoniel Leisure Centre (Brian Lawless/PA)
The bonfire at Avoniel Leisure Centre (Brian Lawless/PA)

"But what I seen was people trying to work to make sure this was resolved peacefully.

"I condemn any threats that were made. I condemn any plans there was for violence. But those things didn't happen thankfully."

He said it was "totally appalling" contractors were named and threatened in graffiti in the area saying any attempt to remove the bonfire material should have been allowed to go ahead without incident.

"No body wants to see Northern Ireland show that face but sadly they did," he added.

"We had petrol bombs thrown by republicans on the eleventh night. We had a hoax bomb - indeed it wasn't a hoax it was a viable device - on the Twelfth and all those things need to be condemned."

Rev Gibson said the declarations on Twelfth on Brexit, Northern Ireland's place in the UK and support for Soldier F were right and proper denying they were "uncompromising".

PressEye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 11th July 2019
Pictured: Avoniel Bonfire, East Belfast
Picture: Philip Magowan / PressEye
PressEye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 11th July 2019 Pictured: Avoniel Bonfire, East Belfast Picture: Philip Magowan / PressEye

On the prospect of any future Irish border poll he said there was always going to be one and it didn't concern him and as a democrat he would accept the outcome.

He said it would likely end in favour of the status quo but did not rule out leaving in the event of a vote in favour of reunification. He said it was the job of unionists to convince people of the merits of Northern Ireland remaining in the UK.

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