Stormont ministers threaten PSNI with court action over bonfire stance

·5-min read
A bonfire in Belfast (PA Wire)
A bonfire in Belfast (PA Wire)

Two Stormont ministers have threatened police in Northern Ireland with legal action for failing to assist in the removal of a contentious loyalist bonfire.

Sinn Fein Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey and SDLP Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon have issue pre-action correspondence to a Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) commander signalling their intention to take a judicial review against his decision not to intervene on the bonfire in the loyalist area of Tiger’s Bay in north Belfast

DUP ministers have challenging the authority of the ministers to take actions against the PSNI without the approval of the wider executive.

The bonfire, which is set to be lit at the weekend as part of traditional “Eleventh Night” events, is the source of escalating tensions amid claims from residents in the nearby nationalist New Lodge that it has been built too close to the sensitive community interface.

Nationalist residents claim they are living in fear and have been attacked by missiles thrown by loyalist bonfire builders.

Coronavirus – Tue Mar 30, 2021 (PA Wire)
Coronavirus – Tue Mar 30, 2021 (PA Wire)

Loyalists have rejected suggestions the siting of the bonfire was deliberately provocative and have accused nationalists and republicans of whipping up tensions in an effort to deny them what they view as a legitimate celebration of their culture.

Northern Ireland’s deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill urged the police to facilitate the removal of the loyalist bonfire.

Speaking to reporters in Belfast, she said: “Quite frankly any government minister shouldn’t have to take the PSNI to court to do their job.

“I’ve been with residents this week, residents whose homes have been attacked, whose windows have been smashed by masonry being fired at their homes.

“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 which heightens tension and causes bother.

“I’ve met with the residents and I’ve heard it first hand, their fear, their worry, and the fact that their homes are being attacked just isn’t acceptable.

“The PSNI seem to be more interested in facilitating the bonfire and the trouble as opposed to going in and doing their job and removing it. This is about law and order and these people are in breach of law and the PSNI should go in and do their job.”

She also urged DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson to encourage the removal of the Tiger’s Bay bonfire.

Hundreds of “Eleventh Night” bonfires will be lit in loyalist communities across Northern Ireland over the weekend, most of them late on Sunday night, to usher in the main date in the Protestant loyal order parading season – the Twelfth of July.

While the majority pass off each year without incident, some remain the source of community tension, with authorities previously having intervened to remove towering pyres on health and safety grounds.

The road on Adam Street where the Tiger’s Bay bonfire has been built is owned by the Department of Infrastructure while an adjacent piece of land where building materials have been collected is owned by the Department of Communities.

The two departments have sought and secured the assistance of Belfast City Council (BCC) to remove the pyre.

Battle of the Boyne bonfires (PA Wire)
Battle of the Boyne bonfires (PA Wire)

However, in order for BCC contractors to carry out the operation they need protection from the PSNI.

The police are refusing to do so, having made the assessment that an intervention would risk disorder, placing people congregating at the bonfire, including several children, at risk.

The ministers’ legal letter to the PSNI notes that the police have taken an “operational decision” not to support the contractors.

The letter, issued through Stormont’s Departmental Solicitor’s Office, says Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd has informed the departments that police intervention will “likely lead to wider disorder”.

The correspondence to Mr Todd sets out the departments’ “proposed basis to instigate judicial review proceedings” unless he agrees to intervene.

In the letter, seen by the PA news agency, the ministers argue that the PSNI’s refusal to act runs contrary to its statutory responsibilities under the Police (NI) Act 2000, namely to protect life and property, preserve order, prevent the commission of offences and bring offenders to justice.

“The PSNI is expected to facilitate the BCC contractors in securing access to the bonfire site and in removing individuals in and around the bonfire so that it may be dismantled by the contractors,” the letter states.

Brexit (PA Wire)
Brexit (PA Wire)

The Tigers Bay Bonfire Group, which is listed as an interested party in the legal correspondence, has issued a response to the judicial review threat.

In that response, Jamie Bryson, representing the group, has questioned the authority of the ministers to act on the matter, highlighting that under Stormont’s ministerial code issues deemed “significant and controversial” should be dealt with by the powersharing executive as a whole.

Pursuant to that point, Mr Bryson has also sent the response to Stormont’s Executive Office, identifying it as a further interested party.

“The challenge is a clear and obvious attempt by two nationalist ministers to usurp the operational independence of the PSNI,” Mr Bryson states in his letter.

The PSNI has declined to comment on the issue, citing ongoing judicial proceedings.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson insisted the issue was a matter for the entire executive.

Sir Jeffrey said DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots had written to ministers Hargey and Mallon to raise concerns.

“Such controversial, significant or cross-cutting matters should be considered by the Northern Ireland Executive rather than individual ministers,” said Sir Jeffrey.

“It is deeply unfortunate when we are in the middle of an economic and health crisis that the focus of Sinn Fein and SDLP ministers is on a bonfire in north Belfast.”

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