The UVF’s reign of terror in east Belfast appears intact after it forced a humiliating climbdown by Belfast City Council over an illegal bonfire which had forced the closure of a leisure centre.
The council backed down after contractors who were due to remove the pile of flammable material received a death threat from the paramilitary killer gang was paidnted on a wall nearby.
The PSNI had warned the council of the likelihood of ‘a severe violent confrontation orchestrated by the UVF’ if the bonfire was stopped. “The use of firearms during such disorder cannot be ruled out,” they said.
The u-turn resulted in the bonfire going ahead as planned on t`hursday night, including a ritual burning of Irish flags and symbols. It was just one of hundreds held by unionists around the north of Ireland in a spectacle of sectarian hate and bigotry.
Traditional “Eleventh Night” displays typically see death threats agains Catholics and posters of Catholic politicians symbolically burned, anong with flags and symblols of loyalists’ perceived enemies.
Depsite breaching seven laws, by-laws and regulations, more the bonfires are ignored by the authorities every year, regardless of the level of hate on show.
Recent actions have been on safety grounds and this year it was a move to ban the burning of tyres for environmental reasons that brought matters at Avoniel to a head and created the standoff . At 5am on Thursday, two PSNI vehicles arrived at the carpark of the council-owned centre and a statement was played over the loudspeaker urging people to vacate the site. They warned bonfire builders and supporters they were trespassing, but made not attempt to remove a barricade erected in front of the centre by loyalists.
But by the afternoon, the council’s decision to concede after their contractor had pulled out was confirmed.
Ironically, the site was later cleared by the PSNI to carry out a search following a bomb hoax, before the loyalists were all permitted to return and proceed with their bonfire.
Robert Girvin, from the ‘East Belfast Cultural Collective’, the group representing the bonfire builders, claimed the bonfire was a “cultural celebration”. He denied the UVF was involved in the threat against the contractors.
“Unless the UVF is 70-year-old grannies and 12-year-old children, there’s no UVF involvement here,” he said.
Loyalist flags activist Jamie Bryson, who was mourning the death of fellow loyalist Willie Frazier earlier in the week, was ebullient.
“This is a momentous and hugely symbolic victory not only for Avoniel, or East Belfast but for loyalism across Northern Ireland,” he said. “It has been a long time since nationalism has been outplayed so publicly and convincingly.”
Asked for his opinion on te UVF involvement, he said “this issue is more properly one for the days ahead given this is still a live situation”.
Humiliated nationalist councillors called for an investigation into how the names of contractors were leaked to the UVF from supposedly confidential council meetings.
Sinn Féin councillor Ciaran Beattie said he was “disappointed” at the outcome, and blamed the PSNI for failing to act. However, Alliance councillor Michael Long said a move against the bonfire would have been “counter-productive”.
“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.”
Meanwhile, the PSNI is under pressure to categorically state that there is no loyalist ceasefire. Assistant PSNI Chief Mark Hamilton has confirmed they had information about the likelihood of a UVF attack, but would not elaborate.
Amid a wave of sectarian hate this week, including an attack on a Catholic church in County Derry, Alliance councillor in Belfast Emmet McDonagh-Brown described the situation in the North as “anarchy”
At least one bonfire in the city had signs calling on loyalists to ‘KAT’ (Kill All Taigs) and ATAT (‘All Taigs aer Targets’). Irish, Palestinian, Celtic and republican flags and banners were all burned in several localtions.
New additions to the pyres of hate this year was one banner mocking the recent passing of IRA legend Billy McKee.
The DUP again showed their support, posing for photographs beside bonfires regardless of the sectarian message on display. Two DUP councillors were on hand as the Irish national flag was burned on a bonfire in Edenderry, Portadown.
A giant 20ft tall Irish flag was set aflame in Newtownards. Houses and flats had to be boarded up and doused to protect them from flames in several locations, including Belfast, Newtownards, Coleraine and Portadown.
A bonfire was again lit near the Holiday Inn hotel at Sandy Row in central Belfast. Tourists took selfies as Irish flags were incinerated there.
In the Corcrain area of Portadown, homes had to be evacuated to protect residents from an inferno after a council decision to remove materials from the bonfire was reversed. Sinn Féin Councillor Paul Duffy called it a “complete abdication” of the council’s duty to ratepayers.
“We all have a right to live free from fear and intimidation in our homes but this council is failing dismally in its duty to protect ratepayers and uphold its legal responsibilities,” he said.
Fellow councillor Catherine Nelson had described the situation of evacuating residents to light a bonfire as “ludicrous”. acceptable in 2019”.
She said: “Any right-thinking person... is watching in total and utter disbelief. We have newborn babies, we have elderly people in these blocks of flats. We have to take a step back and realise that is not acceptable.”