Northern Ireland

PSNI 'did not hold meetings with UVF' over bonfire dispute

Bonfire at Avoneil Leisure Centre Image copyright PA Media
Image caption The bonfire went ahead after threats were made against contractors who were booked to remove the pyre

There have been "no formal meetings" between the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a senior officer has said.

ACC Alan Todd was responding to a claim that police "engaged" with a man widely named as the leader of the east Belfast UVF during a loyalist bonfire dispute.

That man, Stephen Matthews, denies being a UVF leader.

Mr Todd said police had "not met with that individual as part of any formal set up" in Avoniel bonfire dispute.

The PSNI assistant chief constable did not rule out the possibility that officers had "chance" encounters with Mr Matthews as he was present at a number of bonfires, but said it was wrong to describe that type of contact as a "meeting".

Bonfires are lit in some Protestant areas in Northern Ireland on 11 July, the night before Orange Order parades commemorate the 1690 Battle of the Boyne.

The controversial east Belfast bonfire was built in the grounds of the council-owned Avoneil leisure centre and was set alight last week without the landowner's permission.

Belfast City Council had tried to hire contractors to remove the pyre from its land, but gave up when graffiti appeared on walls near the leisure centre, threatening named contractors.

Image caption A contractor due to remove an Eleventh Night bonfire pulled out after threats were made

Both the PSNI and the DUP MP for East Belfast Gavin Robinson said they believed members of the UVF were involved in the bonfire dispute.

In a letter to the council ahead of the Eleventh Night bonfire, police warned there was a risk of "serious violence" if council workers attempted to dismantle it.

On Monday, BBC News NI reported a claim by loyalist activist Jamie Bryson that police had "engaged" with Mr Matthews last week amid tension over the bonfire.

ACC Alan Todd told the BBC's Nolan Show: "There have been no formal meetings or scheduled meetings or diaried meetings between any senior member of this organisation and the individual you name to which I am aware of, and I have checked with all the local officers responsible.

"However, that individual has been present, along with others from the East Belfast Cultural Collective at a number of sites and will have come into contact with police officers as they go about their daily work.

"I don't style that as a meeting. It shouldn't be characterised as we're in some way in cahoots with that individual; that we're bending to their will or seeking their support."

Image caption ACC Alan Todd said PSNI officers "don't engage" with crime gangs or paramilitary bodies

Mr Todd specifically addressed the claim that officers had "engaged" with Mr Matthews.

"That can be a 'good morning' in the street; it can be 'hello, how are you;' it can be 'I didn't expect to see you here'.

Later on Tuesday, Mr Todd said that on 7 July, local officers explained to bonfire builders and other members of the community who were present on Lismore Street in east Belfast that tyres were going to be removed.

"While we are aware there was at least one senior loyalist among the crowd, it was be completely inaccurate to describe this as a meeting or engagement," he said in a statement.

"This happened by circumstance, not by design and I want to make this very clear we did not meet or negotiate with individuals from loyalist groupings or involve them in our policing decision making."

'Take it on'

Jamie Bryson is a member of the East Belfast Cultural Collective, which claims to represent a number of bonfire builders in the area.

He told BBC News NI on Monday that Mr Matthews was a member of the 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," Mr Byson added.

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

Two days after the Avoneil bonfire was lit, the new Chief Constable Simon Byrne vowed that the PSNI would "not tolerate" the UVF and would "take it on using all the powers".

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