Unionists disappointed at decision ‘not to build on bonfire progress’

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Unionists have issued a joint statement hitting out at the nationalist-dominated Belfast City Council for ‘choosing not to build on progress made by bonfire builders’ as tensions rise over the safety and location of the structures in the run up to the Twelfth.

DUP, UUP and PUP councillors spoke out with one voice after the council affirmed a decision to remove material from a contested loyalist bonfire in the grounds of the council’s leisure centre at Avoniel in the east of the city.

DUP Councillor George Dorrian, PUP Councillor John Kyle and UUP Councillor Jim Rodgers said: “We are disappointed that the Strategic Policy and Resources committee chose not to build on the progress made by bonfire builders when they removed the tyres yesterday [Monday] evening from Avoniel bonfire.

“This year has seen a dramatic improvement in the situation around bonfires throughout Belfast. We have spent months engaging with groups across the city and real progress is being made.”

The council committee reconvened at noon on Tuesday and affirmed an earlier decision to remove material, despite builders saying their decision to remove all tyres meant there was now no risk.

The council said: “Efforts have been ongoing for several months to encourage bonfire builders to be mindful of the need to protect life and property.”

Avoneil closed early on Sunday after its entrance was barricaded by men acting in a “threatening” way towards staff. In other bonfire developments:

• Tyres were removed from one in Connswater on Monday

• One in nearby Ashdale Street was voluntarily moved to King George’s Playing Field.

• Council contractors removed 1,800 tyres from one in Lismore Street, south Belfast, on Sunday.

• Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council failed to find a contractor to remove an “unsafe” bonfire in Portadown.

Robert Girvin, of the East Belfast Cultural Collective, which represents a number of bonfire builders, said he would meet councillors from any party to address concerns over the Avoniel bonfire.

“Have dialogue with us. Tell us exactly what your issue is with this bonfire,” he told the BBC.

“It follows Northern Ireland Fire Service guidelines. The tyres have been removed.

“Talk to me... And let us know exactly - apart from your attempts to erode our culture - what is the issue?”

But Sinn Fein councillor Ciaran Beattie insisted the issue was the height and mass of the bonfires and the threat posed to nearby buildings.

“Nothing has changed as far as we are concerned, bar the tyres being removed,” he said. “There is still a dangerous bonfire on that site.”