Riot police have withdrawn from a republican area of north Belfast following clashes today over their efforts to prevent a bonfire constructed by local youths from being lit.
There was cheering as the PSNI pulled out, and tensions reduced further after the PSNI announced the operation had been cancelled.
A handful of anti-internment bonfires are still lit in some republican areas, traditionally to commemorate the introduction of internment without trial brought in by the British government on 9 August 1971. However, republican groups do not support their continuation due to sectarian displays which mimic and respond to the hundreds which appear on loyalist bonfires every July.
This year’s bonfire in north Belfast was again constructed by a so-called nationalist “hood community” in the New Lodge despite the intense opposition of Sinn Fein and a majority of local residents in the area.
Efforts to prevent the bonfire in recent weeks resulted in graffiti threats to those contractors hired to remove it, as well as a local community centre.
However, the PSNI decision to lay violent siege to the stack of wooden pallets early this morning came as a surprise. Over a dozen armoured vehicles were involved, and scores of riot police were deployed, some armed with plastic bullet guns.
Between one and three local youths remained atop the pile throughout the day, while others who attempted to join them were beaten away. There were repeated standoffs and missile throwing, as well as a full baton charge by the PSNI. One riot policeman fell to the ground after he was struck on the side of the head by a missile.
The standoff came to a sudden end this afternoon when the PSNI withdrew. PSNI Assistant Chief Alan Todd said the decision had been taken for reasons of public safety because of “risks to innocent bystanders”. However, he also blamed the presence of “older people” who he claimed had been “using women and children as shields” and were “probably related to violent dissident republican groupings”.
Republican groups have reiterated that they oppose the bonfire. The Republican Network for Unity said it condemned the “heavy handed tactics of the PSNI” in the New Lodge but also said it believed “the will of the local residents in the area should be respected and the fire should not take place”.
“For years 9th August bonfires were lit to mark the anniversary of Internment. In more recent years these fires have turned into a hub for antisocial elements to reck havoc on areas that the majority don’t even live in,” they said.
“As Republicans we need to work with the local residents in all areas to find a way of still remembering anniversaries such as internment without attracting antisocial elements into our areas.”
Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly, who supported the PSNI operation in the New Lodge, strongly condemned those involved in the bonfire.
“This is a disgraceful situation because residents include people who are already vulnerable, some of whom have disabilities and other health related problems,” he said.
He added that “the vast majority of the community have told [Sinn Féin] they do not want this bonfire” and that it had been built “by anti-social elements who torture this district throughout the year”.
Mr Kelly added that the PSNI and youth workers had attempted to negotiate with the young people to come down from the pile of pallets so it could be cleared. “Residents are adamant the bonfire should not be lit,” he said.
The PSNI’s handling of the New Lodge bonfire is being compared with one in Avoniel last month, one of hundreds of loyalist bonfires constructed for the ‘Eleventh Night’. It was deemed illegal as it was constructed in the carpark of a public leisure centre in east Belfast.
After a peaceful negotiation with figures linked to the loyalist paramilitary UVF, the Avoniel bonfire was allowed to proceed by the PSNI, who blamed the threat of UVF violence.
Tensions are expected to remain high in Belfast over the weekend after an anti-internment commemoration march, planned for Saturday, was today ruled to be ‘illegal’. The Anti-Internment League, who are organising the march, said it would be holding a protest at Belfast City Hall instead.