Northern Ireland

Bonfires: Contractor pulls out of Avoniel bonfire removal

Loyalists standing on the bonfire at Avoniel Leisure Centre Image copyright PA Media
Image caption A bonfire has been built in the car park at Avoniel Leisure Centre

A contractor due to remove a bonfire from an east Belfast leisure centre has pulled out, the BBC has learned.

Police told Belfast City Council that the loyalist paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was involved with the Avoniel bonfire.

In a letter, police said there was a risk of "serious violence" if council workers attempted to dismantle it.

Bonfire organisers said they could "guarantee no violence" if and when contractors arrived to remove the pyre.

BBC News NI understands the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said in its letter to the council that the violence would be "controlled by the east Belfast UVF" and they "could not rule out a risk from firearms".

Bonfire builders said it had been reduced in size and relocated to a safer location.

Image copyright PA Media
Image caption Tyres and bins were used to block the gates at Avoniel Leisure Centre

In a statement on Wednesday evening, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton said the police were ready to assist the council or its contractor to remove bonfire materials.

"I would urge people to heed the calls from the community and not to engage in any violent or criminal behaviour," he added.

Tensions have been building ahead of bonfires being lit before the Twelfth of July marches.

Bonfires are lit in some Protestant areas in Northern Ireland on 11 July, the night before Orange Order parades commemorate the 1690 Battle of the Boyne.

'No-one wants violence'

Loyalist graffiti had appeared next to the site at Avoniel Leisure Centre threatening contractors alleged to be involved in the removal of bonfire material.

Jamie Bryson, a spokesman for the bonfire builders, said speakers at a protest outside the leisure centre on Tuesday had urged people to "stay peaceful and stay calm".

"There had been two, three, days of massive tension in this community and the only incident of note is a piece of graffiti on the wall."

Robert Girvin, from the East Belfast Cultural Collective, a group representing builders of a number of bonfires, said the Avoniel bonfire was not controlled by the UVF.

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

Image copyright PA Media
Image caption Hundreds of people attended a protest at the Avoniel bonfire on Tuesday

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

On Tuesday night, hundreds of people gathered outside Avoniel Leisure Centre to protest against the council decision to remove the bonfire.

It came after Belfast City Council said its initial decision to remove bonfire material at Avoniel Leisure Centre had not changed.

Belfast councillors met again on Wednesday and decided to go ahead with plans to remove it.

Image copyright PA Media
Image caption Tyres were removed from the bonfire and the builders said it was reduced in size

In a statement, the council said it intended to send a letter of complaint to the police citing aggravated trespass at Avoniel Leisure Centre.

The council said it had tried to engage with bonfire builders in the area for months.

Protesters said they tried to compromise with authorities but were determined that the event would go ahead on Thursday night.

It is estimated there are between 80 and 100 bonfires in Belfast this year, with 35 signed up to an official scheme funded by the council.

'Not as high as last year'

In County Armagh, hundreds of windows were boarded up in a housing estate before a controversial loyalist bonfire was lit on Wednesday night.

Image caption A large crowd of people watched as the Drumilly Green bonfire was lit on Wednesday night

Dozens of residents near the Drumilly Green bonfire in Portadown were advised to leave their homes.

The fire service was also there and sprayed two of the three nearby blocks of flats with foam to keep them cool.

Work had started hours earlier to protect homes near the bonfire after the housing association that owns the flats wrote to residents to say the bonfire posed a "serious health and safety risk".

The South Ulster Housing Association told other residents that they could stay but the doors and windows of their homes were protected.

Image caption Housing Executive workers spent Wednesday boarding up homes near the Portadown bonfire

Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council and the emergency services raised concerns about the bonfire but on Tuesday the council confirmed it would not send a contractor to remove it.

The bonfire was built by a group called Corcrain Redmanville Bonfire.

A spokesperson for the group said: "It's not as big as last year's bonfire. It was 223 pallets high - this one is 210 pallets.

"There has been an overreaction by the council."

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