Police say they have “untested intelligence” that firearms may be used against contractors and officers if any attempt is made to remove a controversial bonfire at Tigers Bay in north Belfast.
Police have said they cannot guarantee the safety of contractors and have strongly advised against moving the fire in the loyalist area which sits on a peace line close to the nationalist New Lodge.
The police assessment is included in papers submitted to the High Court following judicial review proceedings initiated by the Department for Infrastructure and the Department for Communities.
The PSNI has until now refused to provide assistance to private Belfast City Council contractors hired to remove the bonfire, saying that to do so would risk violence at the Adam Street site.
However, in a lengthy submission to the Ministers, Nichola Mallon and Deirdre Hargey, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd gave details of why the police have refused to assist in the removal of the interface bonfire.
ACC Todd said “at this point in time, the bonfire itself appears to constantly be occupied by children in or on the pyre”.
“Clearly those children would need to be removed ahead of any attempt to dismantle the bonfire and to remove the material. This is not a circumstance where there are any straightforward or easy tactical options for contractors, nor indeed, police, even if there was a clear basis in criminal law for doing so.
“It is also our assessment, based on previous experience, if a tactical option to remove the children cannot be found, the operation is unlikely to be able to proceed.
“Secondly, police have significant amounts of intelligence to suggest any attempted intervention will be met with resistance on the site from people from within the local community, including women and children, who will attempt to obstruct and/or resist both contractors and police.
“Such action, in combination with other aspects of the site, would undoubtedly delay any contractor operation, significantly increase tensions and likely lead to disorder.
“This would, in turn, likely require use of force by police, requiring careful necessity and proportionality considerations, particularly in respect of the presence of children.
“Thirdly, police hold intelligence that any attempted intervention on the site, will likely lead to wider disorder. Intelligence suggest significant numbers of ‘petrol bombs’ are available and arrangements in place to mobilise significant numbers of people in response to any removal operation.
“This is further complicated by what is currently untested intelligence, which we are seeking to further develop, indicating a firearms risk in respect of contractors and police operating on the site.
“We assess that attitudes within the local community continue to harden, further increasing the risks.
“Combining these assessments, we see the likelihood of significant disorder as ‘High’, the likelihood of Police Use of Force being required as ‘High’, the likelihood of injuries being received by local people, police officers and, potentially, contractors as ‘High’ and potentially the likelihood of a successful removal operation as being ‘Low/Medium’.
“I don’t take any comfort in the above assessment, however, I consider it important to provide you with a transparent assessment of the likely and foreseeable consequences in order that these can fully considered by your Departments.
“Additionally, I invite you to ensure that your contractor, and their contracting authority, are fully aware of the assessments provided above and understand that, whilst police will seek to mitigate such risks in so far as possible, volatile situations of this nature mean some risks will inevitably remain and considerations remain under The Health and Safety at Work legislation.”
And ACC Todd added that considering the potential paramilitary threat, his officers cannot guarantee the safety of any privately contracted staff.
Sources say police are “standing firm” against political pressure to remove the wood, saying to do so poses a real risk to life, including young children, at the north Belfast interface.
ACC Todd said: “In conclusion, whilst our planning has continued and is continuing to enable us to conduct a policing operation in support of your contractor and we remain confident in our ability to mount an operation to address the threat of serious disorder and any potential paramilitary threat, we cannot, in all the circumstances, absolutely guarantee the safety of your contractors whilst on site.
“Irrespective of this, the presence of children on the bonfire around the clock and the absence of a tactical option to safely remove them, would effectively render any intervention as operationally unfeasible and runs the real risk of realising all of the risks whilst delivering few, if any, of the benefits.
“You should also note, that the police service, in any deployment, retains the right to assess and balance the various risks dynamically in the operational environment. Police will, at all times, consider the tests of necessity and proportionality in respect of the use of police resources and powers and tactical and operational commanders retain the authority to pause, stop or withdraw any policing operation, based on their operational judgments in such matters, irrespective as to whether the operational intention has been achieved or not.
“In light of this and without a reasonable prospect of safely removing the children from the bonfire, my assessment is that the current request for assistance is impracticable”, he added.