Youths in north Belfast have attacked riot police in a standoff over an unauthorised republican bonfire.

The officers withdrew in their Land Rovers from the New Lodge area on Thursday afternoon after coming under a hail of bottles, bricks, fireworks and other projectiles that injured three officers.

At a press conference assistant chief constable Alan Todd accused the ringleaders of using women and children as human shields, obliging police to withdraw to reduce the risk to innocent bystanders.





Crowds watch as a bonfire is lit in the New Lodge area of Belfast on Thursday night.



Crowds watch as a bonfire is lit in the New Lodge area of Belfast on Thursday night. Photograph: PA

“I regrettably have had to take a decision today that the risks of continuing an operation to remove a bonfire were outweighed by the risks that operation would then pose to the wider community, the women and children, and others there present,” he said.

Earlier the police had accompanied contractors from a private removals company in an unsuccessful attempt to dismantle the pyre, which is emblazoned with an Irish tricolour.

After the police withdrew, the bonfire went ahead on Thursday night to commemorate the anniversary of the mass internment of republican suspects in 1971, an event that galvanised IRA recruitment at the height of the Troubles.





Crowds in the New Lodge area as the fire was lit on Thursday night.



Crowds in the New Lodge area as the fire was lit on Thursday night. Photograph: PA

Mark Lindsay, the chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, said the “mob” of “young thugs” used iron fencing as well as projectiles.

They were ugly scenes reminiscent of the past, he said. “They are disgraceful and unacceptable.”

While police and contractors hovered, several youths clambered on top of the bonfire, comprised of wooden pallets, saying they wanted to protect it. It is adjacent to blocks of flats and sits on land owned by the Department of Infrastructure.

Sinn Féin said the community did not want the bonfire, calling it a health and safety hazard, and urged the youths to abandon the standoff.





The bonfire before it was set alight.



Youths building the bonfire. Photograph: PA

“The vast majority of the community have told us they do not want this bonfire,” said Gerry Kelly, a former IRA bomber-turned Sinn Féin assembly member. He called the bonfire a risk to life. “It has been built by anti-social elements, who torture this district throughout the year and many of whom are well-known.”

Politicians from other parties also blamed the standoff on a handful of agitators believed to have links to dissident republicans.

“This is a small element intent on causing havoc and they should not be allowed to continue to hold the area to ransom,” said Alan Chambers, the Ulster Unionist party’s policing spokesperson.

Earlier this week graffiti appeared on the wall of a family centre threatening reprisals if any contractors tried to intervene. It read “Our wood goes, this centre goes” and “Contractors beware”.

A loyalist bonfire in east Belfast prompted a separate standoff last month. The city council ordered the bonfire removed but it went ahead after graffiti threatened the specific removals contractor with reprisals. The contractor withdrew and the bonfire went ahead.


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