Safety concerns over bonfire near play park that has been 'hijacked by UVF'
Fears have been raised over the construction of a bonfire in close proximity to trees, houses and a children's play park in a built-up residential area of Belfast.
More than 1,000 pallets have already been delivered to a car park off the Newtownards Road as builders work on the large pyre near the Walkway Community Centre.
Eyewitnesses also saw six black oil drums in the nearby Ravenscroft Avenue public car park yesterday taking up "a third of the spaces" where vehicles would ordinarily have been.
East Belfast cleric Lucas Parks, whose church sits next to the Walkway centre, voiced his concerns over the structure, which has been relocated from last year's site.
"They've moved the bonfire up from the car park to about 150m away from the multi-sports pitch," he said.
"But it's now completely unsafe. It's far too big for the walkway area.
"It's also too close to a children's play park."
Pastor Parks, whose grandfather was an Orangeman, said he was highlighting his apprehension now because many others living in the area are afraid to do so.
"If it was a beacon bonfire it would be fine," he added.
"But it's a UVF bonfire; it's an overtly sectarian bonfire - tricolours get burned.
"The third issue is the anti-social behaviour that comes with it in the run-up to the Eleventh Night, including drinking, and the place is a mess."
The pastor said he wanted to stress that he would have no opposition to a safe and non-sectarian bonfire.
"We're not against the community celebrating their culture. The issue is that this bonfire got hijacked by the UVF and they don't care about safety."
Last month, an agreement was reached with bonfire builders to move the contentious pyre from the public car park at Bloomfield Walkway to "a safe space". East Belfast Community Initiative (EBCI) said that "the height of the bonfire would not endanger the homes of any members of the community".
EBCI spokesman Jamie Bryson last night responded to renewed anxiety over its proximity to mature sycamore trees, just 6ft away, and houses, approximately 10ft away, at Beechwood Street and Finvoy Street.
"A positive decision was made by the local bonfire builders to move last year's bonfire to an area deemed by the Fire Service to be the safest space in the local vicinity," he said.
"We believe this is a positive development and has significantly de-escalated tensions around that particular bonfire.
"It is a positive example of self-regulation and one which was widely welcomed.
"The bonfire will proceed in the new safe space and we do not intend to engage in a weekly commentary on developments in relation to same."
The Department for Infrastructure, which owns the land, said it "does not approve of or support the unauthorised use of its property including public highways, walkways and verges for the building of bonfires".
The department added that it "will proactively manage bonfire sites on its land by removing unsuitable material when there is clear community support and when advised it is safe to do so by PSNI".
It added: "The removal of material from a bonfire site is a sensitive issue.
"While it may seem reasonably straight forward for DfI Roads staff to move in and remove bonfire material as it is collected, managers have to consider the safety of their staff and contractors.
"Officials are liaising closely with PSNI and other statutory agencies to assess the need for protection of nearby properties, should the bonfire be located on the walkway."
Belfast City Council, which owns the public car park, said that it was "aware bonfire material was being gathered at this site".
"We will continue to work with elected members and key stakeholders to address how bonfires are managed and to minimise any potential negative impacts on local residents," the council said.
"The approach to managing bonfires is a member-led issue and a member-led decision making process has been agreed."