East Belfast bonfire: fears of wider crackdown voiced as crowd gathers for another night

Bandsmen perform at Avoniel leisure centre, where the bonfire can be seen in the background on the far left
Bandsmen perform at Avoniel leisure centre, where the bonfire can be seen in the background on the far left
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Loyalists organised a defiant gathering at the site of a contentious east Belfast bonfire tonight, with some voicing fears that the handling of the bonfire is a sign of a wider crackdown Province-wide.

It followed a city council committee meeting yesterday, after which the council issued a statement saying it had “reaffirmed its previous decision to remove all materials from the site” .

Bandsmen perform at Avoniel leisure centre, where the bonfire can be seen in the background on the far left

Bandsmen perform at Avoniel leisure centre, where the bonfire can be seen in the background on the far left

It added police had been contacted about “aggravated trespass” at the site too.

The bonfire is located in the grounds of council-owned Avoniel Leisure Centre, and people at the scene tonight complained to the News Letter that tyres had already been removed from the fire, it had been scaled down, and was no danger to people or buildings.

Meanwhile, the PSNI said “it remains ready to assist” any contractors who move in, adding “our intelligence pointed to the threat that elements of East Belfast UVF may seek violent confrontation at the Avoniel site”.

The centre is accessed down a street of terraced homes in the loyalist inner-city, with cones indicating it was shut to traffic night.

Robert Girvin of Rising Sons Flute Band (and bonfire spokesman)

Robert Girvin of Rising Sons Flute Band (and bonfire spokesman)

A crowd of hundreds of people had gathered at the bonfire, with hot food for sale, and a performance by bandsmen within the leisure centre grounds. There was no police presence.

Robert Girvin, acting as spokesman for supporters of the bonfire, stressed he wants to see “no violence, no trouble from any quarter” in the event people do move to dismantle it.

He indicated tonight’s gathering had nothing to do with the UVF. He pointed to both sexes and a range of ages in the crowd, and said the bonfire was controlled by “grannies, mothers, sisters, children – the people of the community”.

Loyalists have maintained an overnight presence at the site in recent nights in anticipation of police and contractors moving in to demolish it.

There had been a rally with hundreds of people at the Avoniel site on Tuesday night, with addresses by Robert Girvin and Rev Mervyn Gibson.

Tonight’s gathering did not feature speeches, with music instead being the focus.

When the News Letter arrived, a loudspeaker was playing ‘Here Lies A Soldier Of The UVF’.

After a while drummers and flute-players arrived, performing several songs including The Sash, while youths climbed on top of the bonfire, which was about 20 to 25 pallets high.

Mr Girvin, a member of the Rising Sons Flute Band, told the News Letter: “Barricades have been removed in an attempt to show there is no confrontation wanted here whatsoever. No violence wanted here whatsoever.”

He added: “It seems to be we can’t do anything to please Belfast City Council. Their attitude seems to be they just don’t want a Prod about the place.

“There’s one more day to go before the bonfire’s lit. Why not just let it happen?...

“I believe it’s nationalist-controlled councils’ attitude is changing. The attitude hasn’t changed among the general population and the people.

“As soon as [the council] becomes nationalist-controlled, the attitudes change.”

Asked if this is the shape of things to come, he said: “I’d say so.”

Meanwhile, 24-year-old labourer Kurtis Wray, who has just returned from living in Australia and is involved with the nearby Orangefield bonfire, echoed a theme of growing hostility to bonfires when he said: “What does it take for us to celebrate our culture?

“We want to celebrate it, not defend it.

“I don’t think Sinn Fein will be happy ‘til they get rid of every single bonfire.

“If they move in I think it will be like a starting point to getting rid of all these bonfires in Belfast and further afield.”

Another man, retired engineer Davy Williamson, 58, said he had been going to the bonfire at Avoniel for about 12 years and it had never been a problem before.

He said: “The Alliance and Sinn Fein have now control over the council and they’re against anything loyalist.

“Let it go for another day, and then you’ve another year to negotiate.

“It’s anything loyalist. The Union Flag on City Hall was only the start of it.”

Another man, a member of the PUP who did not want to be named, said of the Avoniel site: “Unfortunately, the bonfire has become a bit of a symbol. This has become an icon for the rest of the bonfires. I am against tyres being burned. It was a stupid move [to have added them to the pyre initially].

“But they took the tyres off – they’ve been willing to move.

“We feel as working class loyalists that Belfast has become a hostile environment.

“If they act [on this bonfire] they’re going to have to come through a lot of women and children essentially, because I can’t see this community budging.”

Among the faces spotted in the crowd was Britain First figure Jayda Fransen.

The council committee which made the decision to remove material from the site was the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee.

The statement from the council after yesterday’s meeting (which was held in secret and was the third such gathering in three days) said the leisure centre is “a neutral space” that it must “protect against any threat to life, property or the environment”.

The committee which made the decision 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).

DUP councillor George Dorrian, one of those on the committee, said the only parties in support of the council statement were Sinn Fein and Alliance. He said: “For what the bonfire actually is, this is nonsense. If they were looking at it pragmatically, and looking at it sensibly, this would not be a course of action.”

Orange Order grand secretary Rev Mervyn Gibson said on Twitter yesterday that the council was being “spiteful, vindictive, obsessive”.

Meanwhile loyalist campaigner Jamie Bryson said that “if the police come in to remove a bonfire in east Belfast that’s on public land, then next week I will be calling for the PSNI go in with contractors to knock down illegally built republican memorials”.

Meanwhile, the BBC reported tonight that a contractor which was expected to remove the bonfire had pulled out.