Bonfire builders ‘did not threaten’ leisure centre staff

A loyalist bonfire is being built in the car park of Avoniel Leisure Centre in east Belfast
A loyalist bonfire is being built in the car park of Avoniel Leisure Centre in east Belfast
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A group which represents bonfire builders from over a dozen sites in Northern Ireland has rejected claims that loyalists threatened staff at a Belfast leisure centre.

Avoniel Leisure Centre closed its doors temporarily yesterday after its entrance was blocked by a barricade.

Staff had difficulty getting access to the main entrance on Sunday morning due to the obstruction at the main gates made up of rubbish and debris.

In recent weeks a bonfire has been constructed in the centre car park, and tensions have been building in the area ahead of the bonfires being lit before the annual Twelfth of July marches.

READ MORE: Outrage as leisure centre forced to close due to bonfire barricade

In a note sent to councillors yesterday, Belfast City Council said the decision to close the facility was taken “due to the potential threat” to workers.

But East Belfast Cultural Collective, which represents 13 bonfires - including Avoniel- across east Belfast, north Down and Newtownards, said there had been no threats made to staff at the leisure centre.

In a statement, the group claimed that “young bonfire builders had panicked” due to rumours that bonfire material was to be taken from the site and closed the gate.

A spokesman added: “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.”

Speaking to the Nolan Show, unionist activist Jamie Bryson accepted that blocking the entrance to the leisure centre was “not the ideal response”.

However, he added: “It could have been handled in a different way, but this is the difficultly when you move in without community consent and stir up this particular tension.”

Meanwhile, DUP South Belfast MP Emma Little Pengelly has told those “hiding” tyres on bonfires to “wise up”.

Here remarks came after Belfast City Council were been accused of “agitating unionist culture” after contractors arrived to remove tyres from the east Belfast London Road bonfire site on Sunday morning.

The politician took to Twitter on Sunday night to ask why people would risk the health of communities by placing the toxic materials on bonfires.

“It is proven that this can cause serious respiratory issues and cancer,” she tweeted.

“I just do not want the community dying of cancer and respiratory disease due to toxic fumes.”