Judge rules that Eleventh Night loyalist bonfire was tool to ‘intimidate and terrorise’ nationalists at tense Belfast interface

A controversial loyalist bonfire in north Belfast was used to terrorise neighbouring nationalist residents, and left police in an “intolerable” situation, a High Court judge ruled today.

Tuesday, 21st September 2021, 11:55 am
The Tigers Bay bonfire, 2021

Mr Justice Horner backed the PSNI’s decision not to remove material from the Tigers Bay site in July because any disorder would have put young children at risk.

Describing late-night sectarian songs and golf balls being driven off the top of the pyre as intimidation of the worst kind, he also suggested a series of ground rules aimed at avoiding the annual dispute.

The judge said: “It is in the interests of both sides that a solution is found which will permit the Protestant Unionist Loyalist (PUL) community to enjoy the bonfire in future years while at the same time eliminating the criminal and antisocial conduct which does so much to poison relations between the two communities.”

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The guidance was issued as he gave reasons for dismissing a legal bid to have police ordered to help dismantle the Eleventh Night bonfire located at Adam Street.

Emergency proceedings were bought on behalf of a woman living just across a peace line in the nationalist New Lodge.

Similar legal action was taken by Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon and Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey in a bid to have the PSNI forced to step in.

At the time an Assistant Chief Constable explained that officers would not intervene in a highly charged situation as the bonfire was occupied by children and the associated risk to life.

Intelligence also pointed to a potential threat from petrol bombs and ballistics at the site, the court heard.

The bonfire was ultimately lit after the challenge to the legality of the PSNI’s stance was rejected.

Giving detailed reasons for his determination today, Mr Justice Horner described the police’s decision as “proportionate, rational and lawful”.

He held that the risks involved in dismantling the bonfire far outweighed those in letting it remain in place to be ignited.

“There is no basis for the court interfering with the decision of the police who were best placed to judge the likely consequences of any attempt to dismantle the Adam Street bonfire, namely widespread civil unrest with a particular risk to young children,” the judge said.

Citing the circumstances, he declared: “The police were placed in an intolerable situation.

“This bonfire was being used by some members of the PUL to intimidate and terrorise those residents in the adjacent properties in the New Lodge area.

“This intimidation took the form of attacks by hitting golf balls from the bonfire and throwing bricks.

“These criminal actions were complemented by the singing of sectarian songs late at night.”

With nationalist residents prevented from using their back gardens, the judge stated: “This was intimidation of the worst kind. It was anti-social. This was criminal conduct.

“It was designed to incite, to try and produce a visceral reaction. It had nothing to do with the celebration of ‘Orange’ culture and should have had nothing to do with it.”

As part of the judgment he also suggested a possible way forward. The judicial guidance included:

:: Before any bonfire is constructed in a disputed area there should be clear ground rules for its size, location and composition.

:: Those rules should be agreed with responsible, representative members of the community building the bonfire.

:: Failure to agree to the ground rules may result in action to prevent any construction on public land.

:: If the rules are agreed but ignored, those who accepted responsibility for their enforcement should be held to account.

Mr Justice Horner concluded: “It is incumbent upon all those who care about their community and who want to celebrate their culture to try and reach consensus as to how this problem can be managed in future years.

“The absence of any agreement as to clearly defined ground rules for the construction and management of this bonfire on public land at this community interface may leave the authorities with only one option, namely to prevent the construction of any bonfire at the outset.”

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