Council ready to dismantle east Belfast bonfires after meeting behind closed doors

08/07/2019:  Bonfire builders at Avoniel leisure centre voluntarily remove tyres from their bonfire this afternoon after a ruling from the city council.
08/07/2019: Bonfire builders at Avoniel leisure centre voluntarily remove tyres from their bonfire this afternoon after a ruling from the city council.
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Preparations are under way to potentially dismantle two bonfires in Belfast, after city councillors determined that the move would be in the “public interest”.

The decision was taken at a meeting of the council’s Strategic Policy and Resources Committee yesterday afternoon – and though no time frame was given for when such action may begin, a DUP councillor said they still hold out hope for negotiated solution.

PACEMAKER BELFAST  08/07/2019'Bonfire builders at the Avoniel Leisure Centre site voluntarily remove tyres from their bonfire this afternoon after a ruling from the City Council.'A council committee has decided to "act in the public interest" and remove materials from two bonfires in east Belfast.The Strategic Policy and Resources Committee met on Monday afternoon to discuss up to eight sites where bonfires have been erected.'Photo Pacemaker Press

PACEMAKER BELFAST 08/07/2019'Bonfire builders at the Avoniel Leisure Centre site voluntarily remove tyres from their bonfire this afternoon after a ruling from the City Council.'A council committee has decided to "act in the public interest" and remove materials from two bonfires in east Belfast.The Strategic Policy and Resources Committee met on Monday afternoon to discuss up to eight sites where bonfires have been erected.'Photo Pacemaker Press

The bonfires are at Avoniel Leisure Centre (between the Albertbridge Road and the Beersbridge Road) and at a car park at Ashdale Street (near Connswater shopping centre).

Both bits of land are owned by the council.

Following the council decision yesterday, pictures emerged of people taking away tyres from the Avoniel site – but it was not certain if this would be enough to see off the possibility of demolition following the council decision.

The committee had met with no public or press present, due to what Belfast City Council said were the sensitivities around the matter.

The committee is made up of five DUP members, seven Sinn Fein ones, two SDLP, three Alliance and one Green (plus a DUP chairman and an Alliance deputy chair).

After the meeting, the council said: “Efforts have been ongoing for several months to encourage bonfire builders to be mindful of the need to protect life and property, and not to burn tyres.”

It added that “in the public interest ... action would be taken to remove materials”.

It clarified to the News Letter that “the decision covers all bonfire materials”, not just tyres, and that it also means flags which have been put up would be removed too.

The council added: “We will not be commenting on when the removal will be taking place.”

The meeting finished at about 2pm yesterday.

Sinn Fein hailed the outcome, and said it had “received cross-party support”.

Alderman Tom Haire told the News Letter the DUP contingent at the meeting had favoured conciliation, as opposed to enforced removal.

He believed there was a short window – at least 24 hours or so – to reach an agreement with the people behind the bonfires.

He said: “There’s no problem if there’s ordinary materials used on the fires, but the tyres cause a health hazard for people. They’re unnecessary.

“Twenty-four hours is a long time if people are trying to negotiate and sort things out.

“There’s still time to weave around this – but we’ve not much time. There’s time still to sort the thing out, if tyres are removed.”

INTIMIDATION IN DISPUTE:

It was reported that Avoniel leisure centre closed temporarily on Sunday due to what the council called a “potential threat” to staff, with a barricade said to have been put up at the gate.

This was disputed by a group called the ‘East Belfast Cultural Collective’, which describes itself as representing 13 bonfires, including Avoniel, “across east Belfast, north Down and Newtownards”.

The group, whose media contact is Jamie Bryson, said: “The young bonfire builders, who were teenagers, panicked due to rumours circulating that a mob of masked mercenaries were coming in to take their community bonfire, which poses no threat to any property.

“They did not threaten or intimidate anyone, they were scared due to the fact they had visions of a repeat of last year’s mass invasion of PSNI officers and masked mercenaries and as such closed over the gate.”

And DUP Alderman Tom Haire said the situation had been blown “out of all proportion”.

He said: “I am given to understand anyway staff were not intimidated.”

However, Alderman Haire’s remarks contrast with a statement issued by DUP HQ in the names of both Gavin Robinson MP and fellow councillor George Dorrian, which said staff “should not have been subjected to this criminal behaviour” and that community facilities should not be “held to ransom by any group”.

It is believed Monday’s council meeting was scheduled before the alleged barricade incident.