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 Féin 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.