Sinn Fein under fire over removal of football club’s facility in east Belfast

The removal of an unauthorised portable building from the car park of East Belfast Football Club was the result of Sinn Fein “vindictiveness,” a PUP councillor has claimed.

Julie-Anne Corr Johnston was commenting after civilian contractors, supported by the PSNI, were tasked by Belfast City Council to move in without prior warning.

A portacabin-type building is removed from East Belfast FC by contractors in Inverary Avenue. 'Pic: Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker

A portacabin-type building is removed from East Belfast FC by contractors in Inverary Avenue. 'Pic: Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker

The contractors arrived at the home of EBFC – the Tommy Patton Memorial Park at Inverary Avenue – early on Tuesday morning and began lifting the portacabin-type building before taking it away on a lorry.

Final approval for the intervention was ratified by the full meeting of council on Monday evening, following a vote taken by the People and Communities Committee on November 6.

The club had asked the council if the deadline for removal could be extended to December 31 as efforts were ongoing to make alternative arrangements.

The temporary building was moved onto the car park at the club’s Inverary Avenue ground in early 2017 and then planning permission was sought retrospectively.

Contractors at East Belfast FC

Contractors at East Belfast FC

The loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson says Sinn Fein had no objections until he sent an email in support of the EBFC application, but the party says that the committee had decided that the club had already had time to get permission.

Cllr Corr Johnston was unable to attend the committee meeting in November, and was unaware the contentious portacabin issue as it had been added to the agenda “at the very last minute,” she said.

She was therefore unaware that the vote to have the building removed was included in the minutes being approved on Monday. The approval came in the form of a full council vote to adopt the minutes without any reference to the football club case.

“Prior to [November 6] I had read the agenda and there was nothing in it that was going to be controversial,” she said.

East Belfast FC. 'Pic: Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker

East Belfast FC. 'Pic: Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker

Cllr Corr Johnston said she was satisfied that the football club was working to have the portable building removed prior to the suggested deadline of December 31.

She said it was “not unreasonable at all” to wait until then, rather than spend public money.

“You can see across social media that Jamie Bryson is rubbing Sinn Fein up the wrong way, and I can’t help but think that it’s perhaps linked in some shape or form,” Cllr Corr Johnston added.

“I believe that there is an element of vindictiveness about this. If they had given the club the three and a half weeks to remove it, then it could have saved a significant amount of money...well into the thousands of pounds.”

The council report on the November 6 committee vote records that: “On a vote by show of hands, ten members voted for the proposal and none against it was declared carried.”

A spokesperson for EBFC said; “The appalling invasion of our football ground this morning is perhaps the most patently obvious example of vindictive overkill that one is likely to see.

“The timeline of events show that permission was granted, and this was then overturned because Sinn Fein and Alliance objected to an individual.

“It appears to us that officials within Belfast City Hall and a number of elected representatives had, for purely vindictive purposes, committed themselves to this course of action.”

The spokesman added: “This incident is without precedent and we believe there is a sectarian motive, as well as a desire to target a number of individuals within our club for political purposes.”

Sinn Fein’s Mairead O’Donnell, who proposed the immediate removal at the committee meeting last month, said the club had failed to remove the building as requested.

Cllr O’Donnell said: “The People and Communities Committee then formally wrote to the club asking them to remove the structure and find an alternative location for the portacabin or request planning permission.

“The committee decided the club had been given adequate time to seek an alternative location or planning permission and today the portacabin was removed from the site.”

A DUP spokesman said unionist councillors supported EBFC in the club’s attempts to gain planning permission, but that voting against the removal proposal “would have made no material difference to the final decision” as Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance all support the motion.

The spokesman also said the party has “sought a meeting with council officers to look at alternative options which will help the club develop its community programme.”

PSNI Chief Inspector Gavin Kirkpatrick said, “Following a council decision on Monday 3 December, Belfast City Council asked police to support their contractors in the removal of a portacabin from the carpark at Alderman Tommy Patton Memorial Park. Police officers attended the carpark this morning (Tuesday) and monitored the removal of the portacabin.”

Jamie Bryson, who acts as a consultant to the football club, said; “This is patently a politically driven decision. Sinn Fein’s support was withdrawn because I had sent the email on behalf of the club.”