‘This could have been quite ugly’: bonfire is allowed to go ahead as council to probe leak

The bonfire at Avoniel
The bonfire at Avoniel
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Relief was voiced tonight as an Eleventh Night bonfire in east Belfast was allowed to proceed after an escalating stand-off – though the council said it would investigate leaks surrounding people who were meant to dismantle it.

A move to hire contractors to take away fire materials was first mooted by the council on Tuesday, but failed to materialise.

The bonfire was located in the grounds of council-run Avoniel leisure centre.

Graffiti in the surrounding streets warned named individuals not to help the council, and one firm reportedly pulled out.

Whilst the council said anyone at the centre “will be regarded as trespassers until the complex is reopened next week”, this evening a wave of people – from the media to elderly ladies – watched as bonfire-builders geared up to light the fire, bedecked with tricolours and a 1916 Rising flag.

Police had sealed it off after bombscare earlier in the evening, but nothing was found.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Belfast City Council’s Strategic Policy & Resources (SP&R) Committee said today: “Members were updated that a PSNI investigation is under way at Avoniel Leisure Centre following a complaint of aggravated trespass.

“Members agreed to establish an all-party working group, reporting to the SP&R committee, to put in place a framework to achieve more effective management of bonfires.

“They also expressed a need for further robust dialogue with other agencies on the issue of bonfires, including concerns around the involvement of paramilitaries in some cases.

“The committee reiterated its support for the PSNI to take action against those committing and orchestrating aggravated trespass at Avoniel.

“Members again expressed their concern about the involvement of the east Belfast UVF in the unlawful occupation of the Avoniel site.”

Robert Girvin, from the East Belfast Cultural Collective (acting as a spokesman for the bonfire supporters) said there was a sense of “relief”, adding: “I’m glad they have seen sense, though they say they are going to prosecute people for going on to council land.

“This is a public park, there’s a child’s playground here and football pitches. Are they going to prosecute the people of Avoniel for using Avoniel Leisure Centre? Pettiness in the extreme. It’s just getting daft.”

Meanwhile Sinn Fein councillor Ciaran Beattie said: “It’s disappointing from our perspective. Belfast Council made a democratic decision to remove all bonfire materials from that site.”

There had been a rally with speeches at the site on Tuesday, followed by a band performance on Wednesday, but this evening the car park where the fire stands was quieter.

Among the people whom the News Letter spoke to near the centre was a retired church minister who is living in east Belfast.

He was taking a look at a number of bonfires in the district, and said: “It’s been blown out of all proportion. It’s Sinn Fein flexing their muscles in the council. The community here is going to have to have somewhere to celebrate, and it means the council has to provide grounds somewhere for them to work with.

“They should give them peace. The Protestant community deserve to be able to celebrate their heritage in peace.”

Another man, a retired shipyard worker from Bangor, in their mid-60s, said he had just come from one which was four times as big.

“There was that much hype about this it gave everybody the impression there was this massive fire right up against the leisure centre – it’s not the case.”

On the idea of it being dismantled, he said: “This could’ve turned quite ugly if the wrong decision had been taken.”

A lady, aged in their early 70s and from the local area, said: “We only have the one day of the year for this here [bonfires and loyalist culture]. They’re trying to do away with us. I was born here – no way.”