Leak of bonfire names is unlikely to have come from PSNI, says top officer

The controversial bonfire at Avoniel leisure centre in east Belfast last week, ahead of being lit on July 11. 'Photo  Pacemaker Press
The controversial bonfire at Avoniel leisure centre in east Belfast last week, ahead of being lit on July 11. 'Photo Pacemaker Press
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A leak that led to the names of contractors appearing in graffiti warning against demolishing a contentious loyalist bonfire was “highly unlikely” to have come from within the police, a senior officer has said.

The stand-off over the bonfire built in the car park of Avoniel Leisure Centre in east Belfast ended on Thursday after councillors backed down over plans to demolish it.

Belfast City Council abandoned an attempt to remove the structure when its hired private contractor pulled out of the job after menacing graffiti threats were daubed on walls close to the site purporting to identify the company.

As part of the fallout from the episode, the council has asked police to investigate how closely-guarded details around contractors came into the public domain.

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Barbara Gray was asked at a press briefing yesterday whether there are suspicions the leak came from within the force.

She said: “It is highly unlikely that that happened, but if that is the case at any point that absolutely will be the subject and matter of investigation by the Police Ombudsman and that will be within their remit.”

The ombudsman watchdog investigates alleged police misconduct in Northern Ireland.

Ms Gray was pressed whether it would be more appropriate for an outside police force to take on the investigation if any suspicion of PSNI involvement exists. She insisted that is the ombudsman’s role.

The Avoniel bonfire was lit on Thursday night along with scores of others across the Province.

Bonfire builders have faced criticism in the past for placing election posters belonging to nationalist and republican politicians on the fires and burning them.

Ms Gray said: “I am relieved that over the past 24 hours we haven’t seen a repeat of the violence we witnessed on our streets this time last year.”

In an apparent reference to the stand-off over the Avoniel bonfire in Belfast, Ms Gray added: “There is absolutely no doubt that there has been challenges over the last week, not just for us as a police service but for other public services.”

Before the council reversed its decision to intervene to remove the controversial fire, police had warned that sending in contractors, escorted by its officers, could have prompted serious disorder orchestrated by the East Belfast grouping of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), with the risk of gun violence.

On Friday, Ms Gray said: “I have no doubt that at Avoniel there was influence from East Belfast UVF, I have absolutely no doubt about that.”

She insisted police had been “ready to go” and escort contractors into the site before the company pulled out of its arrangement with the council.

The council has urged police to pursue bonfire builders for trespassing on the Avoniel site.

Asked why police did not move against anyone for aggravated trespass prior to the fire being lit, Ms Gray said: “We have no powers to remove anybody.”

She said police had to comply with “complex legislation” and had undertaken evidence-gathering at the site.

The officer added that any police action also has to be “proportionate”.

On the bonfire disputes which recur on an annual basis in Northern Ireland, Ms Gray added: “None of this is easy and the resolution to these challenging issues does not rest with the police.”

She noted that a Stormont-established working group set up to examine ways to deal with the thorny issues of flags, identity, culture and tradition has still not reported three years on from its inception.

“We still wait any proposal from that commission,” she said.

Across Northern Ireland, firefighters saw a “significant decrease” in the number of emergency calls linked to loyalist bonfires overnight on Thursday.