Belfast Telegraph

Watch: Portadown bonfire burns as UVF terror fears loom over Belfast's Avoniel site

A contentious bonfire in Portadown was burned on Wednesday night as contractors engaged to remove the bonfire at an east Belfast leisure centre pulled out.

The size of the bonfire in the Corcrain/Redmanville area of Portadown led to residents being offered alternative accommodation in Armagh due to safety concerns. Houses in the area were boarded up to prevent fire damage.

The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service attended the scene and doused houses with water to prevent damage.

On Wednesday contractors engaged by Belfast City Council to remove the bonfire at Avoniel Leisure Centre pulled out due to safety concerns.

It is understood the council is attempting to engage another firm to remove the bonfire.

An emergency council meeting is set to take at 10:30am on Thursday to discuss the way forward.

It will be the fourth meeting to discuss the issue in four days.

On Thursday morning council representatives attended the scene of the bonfire and formally asked the bonfire builders to leave the site.

Bonfire builders were told those on the leisure centre site were involved in an aggravated tresspass.

A round-the-clock "cultural celebration" was held at the site from Wednesday evening by the East Belfast Community Collective.

Two police vehicles arrived at Avoniel Leisure Centre at around 5am on Thursday.

A woman read a statement from inside one of the vehicles which was heard on a loudspeaker requesting that those on Belfast City Council property vacate the area.

Police then left the immediate scene but are maintaining a presence in the wider area.

Two PSNI officers walk towards the bonfire at Avoniel Leisure Centre after Belfast City Council requested that people vacate the site (Liam McBurney/PA)
Two PSNI officers walk towards the bonfire at Avoniel Leisure Centre after Belfast City Council requested that people vacate the site (Liam McBurney/PA)
PSNI at the scene (Liam McBurney/PA)
Robert Girvin at Avoniel Leisure Centre (Liam McBurney/PA)
Bandsmen from the Rising Sons Flute Band outside Avoniel Leisure Centre (Liam McBurney/PA)
PSNI officers escort a Belfast City Council worker in a PSNI vehicle to read out a statement requesting that those on council property vacate the area at Avoniel Leisure Centre, where an 11th night bonfire has been erected. Belfast City Council reaffirmed its decision yesterday for the third time to remove materials from a bonfire site beside the centre.

The bonfire and supporters remain on site. Organisers say they hope to light the bonfire as planned later.

The move came after a Belfast City Council committee voted earlier this week to send contractors in to remove material from a loyalist bonfire built in the car park of the leisure centre.

Council's Strategic Policy and Resources committee met on Wednesday and agreed to stand by its decision.

The Corcrain Redmanville bonfire in Portadown is lit on July 10th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
The Corcrain Redmanville bonfire in Portadown is lit on July 10th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
The Corcrain Redmanville bonfire in Portadown is lit on July 10th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
The Corcrain Redmanville bonfire in Portadown is lit on July 10th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
The Corcrain Redmanville bonfire in Portadown is lit on July 10th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
The Corcrain Redmanville bonfire in Portadown is lit on July 10th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
The Corcrain Redmanville bonfire in Portadown is lit on July 10th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
The Corcrain Redmanville bonfire in Portadown is lit on July 10th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
The Corcrain Redmanville bonfire in Portadown is lit on July 10th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
The Corcrain Redmanville bonfire in Portadown is lit on July 10th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

The committee heard a warning from police that guns could be used during severe violence orchestrated by loyalist paramilitaries if the bonfire material is removed.

The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) opposes Belfast City Council's proposed clearance operation after builders of the pyre trespassed on the local authority's land near the leisure centre in the east of the city.

It is due to be burned on Thursday evening at the start of the loyalist Twelfth of July celebrations.

PSNI assistant chief constable Mark Hamilton said: "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."

He said officers were committed to help the council fulfil its decision to clear the site at Avoniel Leisure Centre car park before the traditional Eleventh Night bonfires are lit.

The Corcrain Redmanville bonfire in Portadown is lit on July 10th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
The Corcrain Redmanville bonfire in Portadown is lit on July 10th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Robert Girvin, from the East Belfast Cultural Collective, described what happened early on Thursday.

"A female council officer from the back of the vehicle read a statement out informing us all that we were aggravated trespassing on council property," he said.

"At this time I can't fault the PSNI, the PSNI came down and talked to us on the site, they have been amicable, informed us honestly and openly what is going on.

"I am severely disappointed in Belfast City Council, I am severely disappointed in Emmet McDonough Brown who thinks this area is unsafe for him to come to which is absolute nonsense. This isn't Mogadishu, this is east Belfast.

"I am hoping now that sense can prevail, the bonfire is allowed to go ahead, everyone enjoys their culture."

Mr Girvin also rejected a suggestion that the bonfire is controlled by the UVF.

"It is controlled by the grannies, the mothers, the sisters, the children, the people of the local community," he said.

"That's who controls this, that's who organises it and that's who wants it. No-one wants violence."

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