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Police chief attacks ‘cynical ploy’ to use children as shields in Belfast bonfire stand-off

Simon Byrne

Northern Ireland's police chief has accused loyalist paramilitaries of using women and children as human shields to frustrate efforts to demolish a contentious bonfire.

Simon Byrne condemned what he called a "cynical ploy" by the east Belfast Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), acknowledging it was a factor in the PSNI's decision not to move against bonfire builders.

Mr Byrne was referring to ad hoc events during the four-day stand-off over a bonfire built in the car park of Avoniel Leisure Centre. They included a party with bouncy castles at the car park entrance and a rally where local women formed a human chain around the bonfire.

The wrangle ended on Thursday. Belfast City Council abandoned an attempt to remove the bonfire when hired private contractors pulled out after menacing graffiti threats were daubed on walls near the site purporting to identify them.

Loyalists manned the site 24 hours a day during the impasse, barricading the gates several times in anticipation of police moving in. At a press briefing on Saturday, Mr Byrne rejected any suggestion the names of contractors were leaked from within the police, insisting there were "no facts" to support such a contention.

It has emerged that police were poised to deploy twice to escort contractors to the site - overnight on both Tuesday and Wednesday - but the plans were aborted at short notice because contractors pulled out each time.

Mr Byrne was challenged on the police's handling of the issue as he fielded media questions at PSNI headquarters.

He denied the service had been faced down by the UVF, insisting he would not tolerate the organisation. "We have not walked away from this at all," he said. He added: "Frankly what we saw the other day was a considered and cynical attempt to put us, the PSNI, into a dispute between communities. If you think an organisation that is prepared to put women and children in front of a bonfire in the expectation we are going to appear in large numbers in Land-Rovers and go into that area and create chaos and mayhem, I think it was a really cynical ploy and I condemn it."

Asked if the presence of women and children was a factor in the decision not to move in, he replied: "Absolutely, because if you put yourselves not just in my shoes but the front-line commanders, were you going to storm that leisure centre in an aggressive way with women and children in front of you?

"It was a cynical ploy to put us off the scent."

A group for the bonfire builders - the East Belfast Cultural Collective - said it was "disappointed" by Mr Byrne's "ludicrous" remarks.

Belfast Telegraph