The PSNI police have won a judge’s backing for their decision to ignore Stormont Ministers in relation to a violent loyalist bonfire gang.
The PSNI refused to intercede to help remove the bonfire, which has been built at a sectarian interface between the loyalist Tiger’s Bay and the nationalist New Lodge in north Belfast.
Ordered by two Ministers to offer protection to removal contractors, the force effectively went on strike and refused to get involved.
Acts of violence have continued for weeks at the interface where the bonfire has been built in a deliberate act of provocation.
It is one of hundreds of 11 July bonfires which precede the traditional day of parades on 12 July. Most amount to sectarian hate crimes, burning nationalist posters and flags, and are often combined with scenes of drunken loyalist violence.
A number of political posters, including Sinn Féin material, have already been seen on some pyres, along with Irish, EU and Palestinian flags.
Residents in New Lodge in Belfast have been attacked by missiles from the site of the 10-metre high bonfire for weeks.
A video which emerged of loyalists clearly firing golf balls from the bonfire was ignored and denied by unionist and loyalist leaders. Instead, several turned up to lend their support to the gang involved.
An ominous sign stating: “Move at your own risk”, was shockingly defended by none other than DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, who incredibly suggested it was health and safety advice.
Donaldson visited the site to lend his backing to the bonfire builders, dispelling the notion that he is a relatively moderate DUP leader. His Ulster Unionist and TUV counterparts, Doug Beattie and Jim Allister, also turned up in an unprecedented show of unionist political support for the inflammatory bonfire.
Local people in the nationalist districts which directly face the site have been forced to endure a steady stream of sectarian abuse from the loyalist gang who can see into the New Lodge from the top of the pyre.
Residents also say that the playing of loud loyalist and rave music around the site is keeping them awake at night. One local man, who did not want to be identified, said people are frightened.
“People say ‘it’s only for the Eleventh’, but it’s not, the minute they start collecting for wood, that’s when things totally change.”
He said bricks and bottles are regularly launched over the peace wall forcing people to remain indoors and to park their cars away fron the target zone.
Children have been terrified. A mother-of-three explained that her children are unable to use the front door of their home in case they are attacked by loyalist missile throwers or verbally abused.
“My wee girl asked be the other day ‘what is a Fenian’,” she said. Some residents have reverted to 1980s style metal constructions to protect their families.
Stormont’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the situation with policing the bonfire should not have reached the courts.
“The PSNI should move in to remove the bonfire. Bonfires are not a celebration of culture and they should not be put into an interface area that heightens tensions and causes bother.”
She said: “It is very clear, I don’t think there is anywhere you would go in any civilised society would you see a situation where residents feel hemmed in or you would see a situation where people actually have cages on the back of their homes to protect their families and to protect their property.
“I don’t think that is an acceptable situation and I don’t think it is tolerable.”
Ms O’Neill added: “I would encourage all those in political leadership to ensure that they do all they can to dial down the tension, that we encourage communities to work together.
“There is no space for bonfires to be on interface areas. So I think our priority in the coming days has to be around the protection of lives, people’s safety, the protection of people’s property, and it has to be about dialling down that tension.
“As one lady put it, she feels hemmed in and that has been her experience every year for as long as she’s lived here and I don’t think that’s acceptable, so more must be done and political leadership needs to kick in.”
Court proceedings were issued on behalf of a woman whose home in the New Lodge is just across the peace line from the bonfire location.
Barrister Sean Devine told the court: “What the police have decided is that one side of the community represents a greater threat than the other, therefore their wishes and demands are going to hold sway.”
He stressed the case was not just about getting the bonfire shifted and that the “substance of this case is to do with the inhumane way in which my client and her neighbours have had to live”.
The PSNI claimed they had intelligence that a riot was planned if the bonfire was removed which could cause injury to those present.
Neasa Murnaghan QC, representing two Stormont departments, argued that the PSNI were effectively supporting the loyalist tactic of using a “human shield” for their bonfire.
But the PSNI argument was enough for Justice Horner, who refused to make an interim order directing the force to support the removal of the bonfire, which he said would be “a greater risk of injustice”.