Northern Ireland

Avoniel Leisure Centre closes after staff 'threatened'

The bonfire in the car park at Avoniel Leisure Centre Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption A loyalist bonfire is being constructed in the car park at Avoniel Leisure Centre

A leisure centre in east Belfast has been closed after its entrance was barricaded by men who were behaving in a "threatening" way to staff.

In a note sent to councillors, Belfast City Council said the decision to close Avoniel Leisure Centre was taken "due to the potential threat" to workers.

A loyalist bonfire is being built in the leisure centre's car park.

Tensions have been building ahead of bonfires being lit before the Twelfth of July marches.

Bonfires are lit in some Protestant areas on 11 July, the evening before thousands of Orange Order members commemorate the Battle of the Boyne with parades across Northern Ireland.

The fires mark William of Orange's victory over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and supporters say they are an important part of loyalist culture.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Contractors removed tyres from a bonfire in south Belfast on Sunday morning

The "barricade" at Avoniel Leisure Centre came after:

  • Tyres were removed from another Belfast bonfire by masked contractors called in by the council
  • Residents in flats in a County Armagh town were advised to leave their homes due to risks posed by a bonfire under construction nearby

'Hurting their own community'

Staff opened Avoniel Leisure Centre for a short time on Sunday morning, having initially been prevented from doing so.

Belfast City Council said "very few customers were able to get into the centre" and the decision was taken to close it at about 12:30 BST.

On Sunday evening, the gates were open and the site was quiet.

The Democratic Unionist Party's (DUP) East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson said the actions of the men at the leisure centre were "wrong and should not be a part of our, or any, community".

"Leisure centre staff were going to work to provide a service to the people of east Belfast - they should not have been subjected to this criminal behaviour.

"Those responsible should face up to the consequences of their disgraceful actions - they are hurting their own community."

Image copyright Gary McKeown
Image caption Avoniel Leisure Centre closed early on Sunday due to the "potential threat to staff"

In its note to councillors, the council said the matter would be reviewed on Monday morning and it would remain in contact with police.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said it would make inquiries.

The Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said the situation was "absolutely disgraceful".

"The community should not be deprived of facilities because of thuggery," added the MEP, who is based in east Belfast.

The SDLP councillor Séamas de Faoite said it was "shameful behaviour we've long expected to be left in the past".

'Prosecute bonfire tyres suppliers'

A few hours earlier, tyres from a nearby bonfire in the south of the city were taken away after an order from the council.

Contractors, accompanied by police, arrived at the site on London Road at about 07:00 BST, with Lismore Street cordoned off.

Image caption Police said they watched the removal of tyres "to ensure that there was no breach of the peace"

The action was being taken to remove tyres but not to dismantle the bonfire, according to the council.

In Belfast, dozens of people had gathered along Lismore Street on Sunday morning to watch tyres being removed from the London Road bonfire.

Belfast City Council said its approach to "managing bonfires" is "led by elected members".

"A member-led decision-making process has been agreed to consider issues and make decisions on a site-by-site basis," it added.

Tyres should not be burned on bonfires, said the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) councillor John Kyle.

Discussions had taken place between the bonfire builders and the council and the builders were aware the tyres would be removed, he added.

"The council only removed tyres - the wood material is still there.

Image caption Residents near a bonfire in Portadown have been advised to leave their homes

"We need so see the Environment Agency prosecuting the dealers who supply the tyres."

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said its officers were present for the removal of the tyres "to ensure that there was no breach of the peace".

'Serious safety risk'

Residents living near the growing bonfire on a large council-owned green in the Corcrain area of Portadown have been advised to leave their homes.

The South Ulster Housing Association, which owns three blocks of flats at the edge of the green, has written to residents, saying the bonfire "poses a serious health and safety risk".

The bonfire has been deemed to be too close to some of the flats.

In its letter to residents - a copy of which was posted on Twitter by Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie - the housing association said the bonfire "poses a risk of damage to your property".

According to the association, the fire service states that a bonfire should be a minimum of five times its height away from the nearest property.

Alternative temporary accommodation has been offered by the housing association "due to the gravity of the situation".

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