UDA threats behind go-ahead for bonfire at interface area – O’Neill

The bonfire is one of more than 160 across the North erected for the Eleventh Night

A  bonfire  built next to a peace wall between  Tigers Bay and  the New Lodge area of Belfast. Photograph:  Niall Carson/PA Wire

A bonfire built next to a peace wall between Tigers Bay and the New Lodge area of Belfast. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Stormont deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill has blamed loyalist paramilitary threats of violence for a contentious bonfire going ahead at a sectarian flashpoint in the North.

Responding to a report that the Ulster Defence Association was suspected to have moved weapons into the loyalist Tigers Bay area of Belfast to prevent the bonfire being moved, Ms O’Neill said it was unacceptable.

“Why is it acceptable to anyone in this day and age that their threat is more dominant than the rights of the citizens being attacked in these areas,” she said.

“I think it absolutely incredulous that the UDA threats mean that this bonfire in the first place is facilitated and also that if the UDA threatens the PSNI, they won’t uphold the law.

“That is not acceptable.”

The bonfire – to be lit on Sunday evening – is one of more than 160 across the North erected for the Eleventh Night, the eve of the peak of the loyalist marching season, the Twelfth of July.

Sited on land belonging to the Stormont government on Adam Street, it is close to an interface with the nationalist New Lodge area.

Nationalist residents say they are living in fear and have been attacked by missiles thrown by loyalist bonfire builders.

Loyalists have rejected suggestions the siting of the bonfire was deliberately provocative and have accused nationalists and republicans of whipping up tensions in an effort to deny them what they see as a celebration of their culture.

Two Stormont ministers, the SDLP’s Nicola Mallon and Sinn Féin’s Deirdre Hargey, launched an unsuccessful legal bid on Friday to force the PSNI to assist in removing the bonfire.

Police declined to offer protection to Belfast City Council contractors to remove it, citing concerns that their intervention could lead to disorder.

In the failed court challenge against the PSNI, a lawyer for the police said there was “untested evidence” of a potential “ballistics” threat to officers and contractors if the bonfire was to be removed.

Ms O’Neill said the court ruling was disappointing but that the legal action was “absolutely the right thing to do” as ministers had a “duty to uphold the law”.

The Sinn Féin deputy leader appealed to all leaders in the North to ensure the bank holiday weekend remains peaceful, particularly at contentious interface areas.

“My message is always very clear, to ask people to stay at home, don’t be involved in street disorder, that is not where anybody should be, everyone should just get on with their lives,” she told the BBC’s Sunday Politics.

“Those who want to celebrate the Twelfth , that is absolutely their entitlement, they should do that, but bonfires at interface areas are not acceptable,” she added.

“It is inviting all this tension, it is inviting all this trouble, and those that put them there, you have to question their motivation.”

Ms Mallon said New Lodge residents had endured months of attacks, abuse and anti-social behaviour while the Tigers Bay bonfire was being erected.

DUP MLA for the area, William Humphrey, accused nationalist politicians of raising tensions.

Following the court decision, PSNI assistant chief constable Alan Todd said: “The Police Service of Northern Ireland has been working with a range of partners and stakeholders over a number of months to ensure a peaceful summer, and that will continue over the next number of days.

“We would urge those within local communities to remain calm during the coming days.”

The Eleventh Night bonfires precede the Twelfth of July parades, which will take place on Monday at 100 locations across the North.

Last year’s parades were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions on public gatherings.

The Orange Order has said the parades this summer will be smaller than usual and locally based.

The normal 18 main events will be replaced by more than 100 local parades.

The Order said organising smaller parades was the best way to ensure the demonstrations went ahead. – Additional reporting by PA