Outrage as leisure centre forced to close due to bonfire barricade

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Politicians have condemned the closure of a leisure centre in Belfast, after the entrance was blocked by a barricade.

Staff at Avoniel Leisure Centre 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, as well as several paramilitary flags erected on lampposts in the surrounding area.

Tensions have been building in the area ahead of the bonfires being lit before the annual Twelfth of July marches.

A council spokeswoman said: “The centre was eventually opened, but very few customers were able to get into the centre.

“The health and safety of staff and customers is a priority and a decision was taken to close the centre early, at 12.30pm.

“Customers were diverted to other centres and bookings accommodated elsewhere as far as possible.”

She said the situation would be reviewed first thing on Monday morning.

East Belfast DUP MP Gavin Robinson criticised those responsible for the closure of the centre, stating: “This behaviour is wrong and should not be a part of our, or any, community. Leisure centre staff were going to work to provide a service to the people of East Belfast. They should not have been subjected to this criminal behaviour.

“Those responsible should face up to the consequences of their disgraceful actions. They are hurting their own community.”

Sinn Fein party group leader in Belfast City Council, Councillor Ciaran Beattie, condemned the intimidation of the centre staff.

“As leisure centre staff arrived to work this morning they were unable to open the centre as a group of men had barricaded and locked the main entrance gates,” he said.

“[Operator] GLL were forced to close the centre due to the potential threat to staff moving around the centre and customers coming into the area.

“Leisure centres are public assets, they should be open and accessible to all members of the community.

“There is an onus on Unionist politicians to show leadership and to stand firm against this type of behaviour. This behaviour is absolutely reprehensible and has no place in our city and society.”

Likewise, Alliance Titanic Councillor Michelle Kelly said the closure was totally unacceptable.

“The rubbish was placed across the entrance to the centre, forcing its closure today, and is believed to be in relation to the bonfire on the site,” said Councillor Kelly.

“It is totally unacceptable anyone would do this for any reason and force the temporary closure of any council facility.

“All this does is deprive ratepayers of services and local people the chance to use a leisure centre at a weekend during the school holidays.

“Councillors from all parties have been working together for several months to seek action on several dangerous bonfires, including Avoniel, and we will support any action that will protect the centre, and the lives and property of local people.

“The debris needs removing, the centre needs reopening for people to use immediately and the bonfire needs to be made secure so everyone can enjoy the break in a safe and respectful way.”

A council committee is due to decide today whether action will be taken to make the bonfire safe.

Earlier on Sunday morning, tyres from a nearby bonfire at a site on London Road, in the south of the city, were taken away after an order from the council, however the existing bonfire on the site has not been removed.

A statement issued by the East Belfast Cultural Collective which represents 13 bonfires across east Belfast, north Down and Newtonards said they were “appalled by this action”.

“It is our view these actions are part of an agenda to drive loyalists into a confrontation with PSNI, who are being used as a tool by Belfast City Council to whip up tensions,” it said.

In Portadown, residents in a block of flats have been strongly advised to leave their homes amid serious concern about a nearby bonfire.

In a letter to tenants, South Ulster Housing Association says that it has been put on notice by the council that “the bonfire poses a serious health and safety risk to residents”.

The Housing Association has organised alternative accommodation for residents in Armagh City Youth Hostel.