Gun violence could be orchestrated by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) if Belfast bonfire material is removed, police in the North have warned Belfast councillors.
Menacing graffiti has already been written on a wall near Avoniel Leisure Centre in the east of the city opposing the local council intervention and officers believe there is a risk of serious violent clashes.
A pyre built on Belfast City Council-owned land was due to be burned on Thursday evening at the start of the loyalist Twelfth of July celebrations.
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officers are preparing to help Belfast City Council fulfil its decision to clear the site over health and safety concerns before the traditional Eleventh Night bonfires are lit.
Councillors said they received a stark warning about the potential impact of their resolution during a meeting on Wednesday afternoon.
Sinn Féin called for unionist parties to “show leadership”. Councillor Ciaran Beattie said the decision to remove bonfire materials was “clearly the right decision” and the bonfire bonfire should never have been erected on a council facility.
However, the Orange Order’s Grand Secretary and local Presbyterian minister Mervyn Gibson said he has not heard anyone threaten violence over this bonfire.
“I hope there’s not. If anyone has, there’s no place for them within the Twelfth celebrations. No paramilitary organisations should be threatening violence against anyone. We want to enjoy the culture, we want to have a peaceful night, and a peaceful day,” he said.
Alliance Party councillor Emmet McDonough Brown said: “We are asking the police to intervene to support us at that site.”
While UVF declared a ceasefire along with other loyalist and republican paramilitaries under the peace process, it has more recently been accused by police of gangsterism and racketeering involving drugs and intimidation.
A statement from Belfast City Council said: “Today members of the strategic policy and resources committee met to discuss the ongoing situation and reaffirmed its previous decision to remove all materials from the site.
“As a result of information received from the PSNI, members also expressed concern about the involvement of the east Belfast UVF.”
On Monday and Tuesday, a majority of members voted for contractors to remove bonfire materials and flags erected on the council property at Avoniel.
Loyalists maintained a presence on Tuesday night at the site in anticipation of police and contractors moving in to demolish it.
A crowd gathered at the gates of the leisure centre in case the council-ordered intervention was carried out in the early hours of Wednesday.
The bonfire has been built in the car park of the centre.
Huge bonfires will be lit in loyalist areas across Northern Ireland late on Thursday night to usher in the Twelfth of July, the main date in the Protestant loyal order marching season marking the 1690 Battle of the Boyne.
While most of the 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 and posing a threat to nearby properties.
The council committee has voted to send contractors, under police escort, to take down the bonfire at Avoniel, with the local authority saying it is acting in the interests of protecting life and property.
Loyalists have barricaded the gates with industrial bins and tyres in an effort to stop vehicles entering the site.
A secondary barricade — made up of tyres — has been placed further into the car park entrance.
Hundreds of loyalists attended a rally at the site on Tuesday night — an event which saw nationalist councillors accused of waging a cultural war against the unionist community.
In Portadown, Co Armagh, residents of three apartment blocks in the Corcrain area have been urged to evacuate their homes due to concerns about the size of a bonfire built nearby.
Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council had also decided to hire contractors to make the structure safe.
However, several councillors claim that plan has now been ditched, with the council having been unable to secure a contractor willing to take down the bonfire, despite approaching more than 35 companies.
Earlier, the East Belfast Cultural Collective, which represents the bonfire builders at Avoniel, said it was planning to hold a “cultural celebration” at the site through Wednesday and overnight into Thursday morning.
It called on “loyalists across Northern Ireland” to attend and has encouraged flute bands to play through the night.
“There is no threat to life or property, no tyres and no community support for the removal of this cultural bonfire,” it said.
“Should the Chief Constable (Simon Byrne) decide to allow the PSNI to become pawns of nationalists and republicans and invade our community without any unionist support or consent, then relationships with the PSNI will be irreparably damaged.” - PA