Two Stormont ministers have failed in a legal bid to force police in Northern Ireland to assist in removing a contentious loyalist bonfire.
Sinn Féin Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey and SDLP Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon took proceedings against the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) over its decision not to intervene on the bonfire in the loyalist area of Tiger’s Bay in north Belfast.
The police declined to offer protection to removal contractors, citing concerns that their intervention could lead to disorder.
The ministers’ bid to compel the police to act failed at emergency High Court proceedings on Friday.
DUP ministers had earlier questioned the authority of the ministers to take legal action against the PSNI without the approval of the wider executive.
The bonfire is now set to be lit as planned this weekend as part of traditional “Eleventh Night” events.
The fire has been 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.
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.
A similar legal bid to stop the bonfire taken by a nationalist resident also failed on Friday.
Hundreds of “Eleventh Night” fires 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 had sought and secured the assistance of Belfast City Council (BCC) to remove the pyre.
However, in order for BCC contractors to carry out the operation they needed protection from the PSNI.
The police have refused 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 initiated the legal action against the PSNI arguing that its refusal to act ran contrary to their 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.
Following the court decisions on Friday, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said: “The Police Service of Northern Ireland has been working with a range of partners and stakeholders over a number of months to ensure a peaceful summer, and that will continue over the next number of days. We would urge those within local communities to remain calm during the coming days.”
Responding to the failure of her legal challenge, Ms Hargey said: “I took the court action as Communities Minister to prevent the destruction of land which is in public ownership and to protect the wider public interest against threats of violence or damage to property and safety.
“I am disappointed with the decision. It remains my view that this illegal bonfire is not appropriate at this interface location.
— Sinn Féin (@sinnfeinireland) July 9, 2021
“Local residents have the right to live free from attacks on their homes and free from intimidation and anti-social behaviour.
“In 2021 those people living at community interfaces should not have to tolerate illegal bonfires which threaten their properties and safety.
“The police and statutory agencies have a duty of care towards residents occupying nearby homes.
“Respect for the rule of law is essential, and must be upheld without fear or favour by the police and statutory agencies. This includes challenging criminality and antisocial behaviour.”
The Tigers Bay Bonfire Group was listed as an interested party in the failed legal action.
Jamie Bryson, representing the group, had 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.
On Friday night he tweeted: “Was such an honour to act for the Tigers Bay Bonfire Group & glad their written submissions were part of the Judicial Review proceedings. A great win for loyalism and a bloody nose for the two nationalists ministers who sought to unlawfully force the PSNI to target PUL (Protestant, unionist, loyalist) culture.”
Earlier, Sinn Féin deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill questioned the police position.
“Quite frankly any government minister shouldn’t have to take the PSNI to court to do their job,” she said.
“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.”
She also urged DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson to encourage the removal of the Tiger’s Bay bonfire.
However, Mr Donaldson insisted the issue was a matter for the entire executive.
DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots also wrote to Ms Hargey and Ms Mallon to raise concerns.
“Such controversial, significant or cross-cutting matters should be considered by the Northern Ireland Executive rather than individual ministers,” said Mr Donaldson.
“It is deeply unfortunate when we are in the middle of an economic and health crisis that the focus of Sinn Féin and SDLP ministers is on a bonfire in north Belfast.”