Northern Ireland

Man named as UVF leader 'met police over Avoniel bonfire'

Crowds of people watch as the bonfire at Avoniel Leisure Centre burns
Image caption There were several days of tension before the Avoniel bonfire was lit on Thursday

A man widely named as the leader of the east Belfast Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) took part in talks with senior police officers about a controversial loyalist bonfire, the BBC understands.

Police "engaged" with Stephen Matthews - who denies being a UVF leader - last week amid tension over a bonfire at Avoniel Leisure Centre, according to the loyalist activist Jamie Bryson.

Attempts to remove the bonfire were dropped after threats to contractors.

Police said the UVF was involved.

Image caption Graffiti threats to contractors who were asked to remove the bonfire appeared in east Belfast

A week-long dispute about the bonfire - built in the leisure centre car park - ended on Friday when Belfast City Council dropped its plan to clear the bonfire site.

Mr Bryson was a central figure in the row, acting as a spokesman for a group calling itself the East Belfast Cultural Collective, representing bonfire builders.

During the dispute he denied the UVF - a loyalist paramilitary group - was involved.

Contractors' details leaked

The bonfire had been contentious because tyres had been placed on it to be burnt and it was built on council property without permission.

Bonfire builders voluntarily removed tyres after contractors acting for the council took 1,800 tyres from another bonfire nearby.

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Media captionDUP MP Gavin Robinson says he believes UVF members are involved in the bonfire dispute

The council decided to remove the bonfire from its grounds and hundreds of people gathered at the Avoniel bonfire on Tuesday to protest against the decision.

Graffiti threats to contractors subsequently appeared on walls close to the site.

Police said they would meet council representatives to discuss a complaint about the leak of the contractors' details.

Last week, the East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson said he believed the UVF was involved in the dispute.

'Not in cahoots with UVF'

On Saturday, Chief Constable Simon Byrne vowed that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) would "not tolerate" the UVF and would "take it on using all the powers".

He also said the PSNI was "not in cahoots with the UVF, despite some of the inference".

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Simon Byrne denied police leaked details of contractors who were asked to remove the bonfire

Mr Bryson told the BBC on Monday that Stephen Matthews was among the members of the East Belfast Cultural Collective who engaged with senior police officers about the bonfire.

"He played an extremely positive role as part of the collective in ensuring we had a peaceful cultural celebration at Avoniel," he added.

"Stephen Matthews has never been convicted of membership of any proscribed organisation.

"Stephen Matthews robustly denies being the leader of the east Belfast UVF."

The Avoniel bonfire was lit on Thursday night - it was one of hundreds set on fire across Northern Ireland on the eve of the Twelfth of July marches.

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