UVF gun terror fear as Belfast council holds firm on bonfire at Avoniel
Threats of gun violence from the UVF over the Avoniel bonfire in east Belfast have been condemned.
Councillors in Belfast said they received the warning from the PSNI yesterday after they stood by their decision to remove the bonfire material at Avoniel Leisure Centre.
But the pyre built on property belonging to Belfast City Council is due to be set alight this evening as part of the Twelfth of July celebrations.
An extract from a letter sent by a senior PSNI officer to the council states: "The intelligence picture indicates that any attempt by the council to remove bonfire material will cause a severe violent confrontation, orchestrated by the UVF.
"The use of firearms during such disorder cannot be ruled out."
Yesterday, organisers of a "cultural celebration" outside Avoniel Leisure Centre denied there was any UVF influence and said they could "guarantee" there would be no violence if council contractors came to clear the material away.
A spokesperson from Belfast City Council commented: "Members of the strategic policy and resources committee met to discuss the ongoing situation and reaffirmed its previous decision to remove all materials from the site.
"As a result of information received from the PSNI, members also expressed concern about the involvement of the East Belfast UVF."
The statement from the council added a letter of complaint would be sent to the PSNI over "aggravated trespass" at the site after the leisure centre was forced to close its doors.
Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton later confirmed the warning.
"Over the last few weeks the PSNI has maintained close liaison with Belfast City Council on the issue of bonfires and this liaison continues this evening in relation to the bonfire at Avoniel Leisure Centre," he said.
"The PSNI remains ready to assist Belfast City Council and any contractor they employ to remove bonfire materials. It is important to note that the PSNI do not have any legal powers regarding the removal of bonfire-related material from the site.
"The letter received this evening from Belfast City Council citing aggravated trespass at Avoniel Leisure Centre, is being treated as an initial complaint and we are engaging with the council in order to progress our investigation.
"Whilst the vast majority of people attending bonfires around Northern Ireland will do so peacefully and lawfully, the PSNI informed Belfast City Council yesterday that our intelligence pointed to the threat that elements of East Belfast UVF may seek violent confrontation at the Avoniel site.
"I strongly welcome this evening the public statements made from members in the community calling for no violence. I would urge people to heed the calls from the community and not to engage in any violent or criminal behaviour.
"The PSNI hopes to see a peaceful resolution to this issue."
It's understood the original contractors tasked with clearing the site have stepped down over safety concerns, but a new contractor has since been appointed.
Sinn Fein council group leader Ciaran Beattie called on unionist parties to show leadership to allow the Avoniel site to be cleared without threats.
"Parties on the council have agreed to remove bonfire materials, end the occupation of the site and allow the centre to return to normal," he said.
"This was clearly the right decision and what is needed now is political leadership, particularly from unionist parties, to ensure the removal goes ahead without disruption and without the kind of intimidation and even death threats that we have seen in recent days."
Alliance councillor Emmet McDonagh-Brown said the situation had descended into "anarchy".
"While this might have started out as a bid to protect their culture in some eyes, this has quickly descended into anarchy locally - with a leisure centre forced to close for days and a paramilitary organisation threatening violence as a response to anyone who questions the legality and safety of this bonfire," Mr McDonagh-Brown said.
The SDLP's Donal Lyons said: "The decision we've taken this week isn't one to proactively seek confrontation, but it was to ensure that all council facilities are neutral and open to everyone."
Yesterday evening, the East Belfast Cultural Collective (EBCC), who represent bonfire organisers, called on loyalists to gather from all over Northern Ireland at Avoniel and have flute bands play into the night.
Barricades in front of the leisure centre were eventually removed by the organisers as crowds watched flute bands play in the rain.
Robert Girvan from the EBCC denied there was any UVF threats or influence over the Avoniel bonfire and said the leisure centre gates had been opened to reduce tensions.
He also criticised City Hall for not recognising that tyres had been voluntarily removed and the height of the bonfire pile had been reduced. Meanwhile, last night there was growing concern a bonfire in Portadown deemed "a serious risk to the health and safety" of residents was about to be set alight.
Houses were boarded up in the Corcrain Drive/Redmanville area of the town to prevent fire damage.
On Tuesday night, senior council officers from Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council decided not to intervene to remove the bonfire.