A stand-off over a contentious loyalist bonfire in Belfast ended on Thursday after councillors backed down over plans to demolish it.
Belfast City Council abandoned an attempt to remove the structure, which had been built in a leisure centre car park, after its hired private contractor pulled out of the job following the appearance of sinister graffiti threats close to the site purporting to identify the company.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) had warned the council that sending in contractors, escorted by its officers, could have prompted serious disorder orchestrated by the East Belfast grouping of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), with the risk of gun violence.
The dispute had arisen ahead of the traditional "Eleventh Night" celebrations, when huge bonfires are lit in loyalist areas across Northern Ireland to usher in the Twelfth of July, the main date in the Protestant loyal order parading season.
While most fires are lit without major incident, a number continue to prove contentious, with the authorities having taken action in recent years on structures deemed unsafe.
The bonfire in the Avoniel Leisure Centre car park has proved controversial this year.
Without a contractor willing to do the work, councillors acknowledged on Thursday that their plan to demolish it had to be axed.
They have instead urged police to pursue bonfire builders for trespassing on the Avoniel site.
Councillors, who have asked police to investigate how the names of contractors were leaked from confidential deliberations, have also agreed to form working group to see how to handle the bonfire issue in coming years.
Bonfire builders had maintained a 24-hour presence at the gates of the site since the council’s strategic policy and resources committee first voted to take action on Monday.
They barricaded the gates in a bid to stop the demolition, with the leisure centre forced to close.
A number of community events have also been staged at the site, with loyalists gathering to show support for the bonfire builders.
The council committee reaffirmed its decision to dismantle the bonfire at two subsequent meetings — on Tuesday and Wednesday.
But at the fourth specially convened meeting in four days on Thursday morning, they ditched the plan.
This followed a warning from PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton who said: "The intelligence picture indicates that any attempt by the council to remove bonfire material will cause a severe violent confrontation, orchestrated by the UVF.
“The use of firearms during such disorder cannot be ruled out.”
Sinn Féin councillor Ciaran Beattie said he was “disappointed”.
He added: “Belfast council made a democratic decision to remove all bonfire materials from that site.
“This site has been occupied for a number of days now, illegally. We have informed anyone on that site they need to remove themselves, they are trespassing.
“It’s disappointing that the contractors have been threatened and the threat has came through to the council, from the police, to say the east Belfast UVF have threatened contractors and possibly with the use of firearms, which is a very worrying situation.”
Alliance councillor Michael Long said it would be "counter-productive" to remove the material on July 11th.
“We have got to take on board that there are children, young people and older people in that area,” he said.
“It is really disappointing that a democratically taken decision in Belfast City Council cannot be implemented, and that is a worrying development.”
DUP councillor George Dorrian, who had argued against intervention at the site, said: “What we wanted was a positive outcome to this situation, we certainly didn’t want anything to be inflamed or any confrontation with the police or council.
“We think this is sensible way forward. We don’t have contractors in place and that’s the reality of where we are.
“We want to take this forward and already look towards a more positive bonfire season and cultural celebrations.”
The barricade had been removed from the site on Wednesday.
At 5am on Thursday, two PSNI vehicles arrived at the site and a statement was played over the loudspeaker urging people to vacate the site.
On Thursday afternoon, after news filtered through about the council decision, the gates were unlocked to allow members of the community to collect tyres that bonfire builders had removed from the pyre earlier in the week in a bid to allay council concerns.
Police continued to maintain a low-key presence in the wider area.
Robert Girvin, from the East Belfast Cultural Collective, the group representing the bonfire builders, said he was "glad" the council had reversed its plans, however he criticised the decision to pursue prosecutions.
He also denied the UVF was involved.
He said: “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.
“Unless the UVF is 70-year-old grannies and 12-year-old children, there’s no UVF involvement here.”
A Belfast City Council spokeswoman said: “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.” - PA