3,000 bonfire pallets stolen in raid on Belfast council depot
Up to 3,000 pallets being controversially stored by Belfast City Council for loyalist bonfires have been stolen.
The Belfast Telegraph can reveal that the theft of the material from council land in east Belfast is being investigated by the PSNI.
The pallets were to be returned to two contentious bonfire sites - one near Chobham Street in east Belfast, and the other beside the Holiday Inn in Sandy Row.
Furious bonfire builders may now demand that the council buys them new pallets to replace the ones stolen, but any such move will meet fierce opposition from Sinn Fein, Alliance and SDLP councillors.
The theft will seriously raise political temperatures in City Hall, with Sinn Fein previously claiming that the council was facilitating illegal bonfires by storing the material.
Following this newspaper's revelations about the stolen pallets, the issue is set to dominate today's meeting of the council's strategic policy and resources committee.
A council spokeswoman last night declined to comment on the theft, but the PSNI confirmed that officers were investigating the incident.
The council recently removed up to 3,000 pallets from the two bonfire sites and held them at a secret location.
They were due to be returned to bonfire builders in the lead-up to the Eleventh Night. Officials had refused to disclose where the pallets were being stored "in the interests of the safety of our staff".
However, we can reveal that they were moved to council land on the Gransha Road, near the La Mon Hotel.
They were stolen from there in what would have been a highly visible and lengthy operation. It would probaby have involved at least one articulated lorry, making repeated journeys, with up to half-a-dozen men loading the material.
A PSNI spokesman said: "Police have received a report on the evening of June 22 regarding the theft of a number of pallets. It is unclear at this time when the pallets were taken and enquiries are ongoing."
There was speculation last night that the pallets may have been taken by rival bonfire builders, or that they could have fallen into republican hands.
Sources said that bonfire builders at the two sites from where the council had removed the material would "go ballistic" when they found out that their pallets had been stolen from Gransha Road.
"They will say that they let the council take away their pallets in good faith and it's the council's responsibility to replace everything that has been stolen," a City Hall insider said.
"The whole episode is farcical. The council has got its fingers badly burnt and is paying the price for not having the guts to deal with the bonfire issue properly in the first place."
Belfast City Council said it removed the pallets "by agreement with the local community" and that it was working with "communities and statutory agencies to minimise the negative impact of bonfires".
Around 2,500 pallets were removed from the Bloomfield Walkway site near Chobham Street.
In 2015 dozens of local families had to be evacuated as a towering pyre was built just 30 feet away from their homes.
Last year a new playground was moved to facilitate the bonfire, as it was feared that the swings and climbing frames would melt in the heat.
The council also recently removed several hundred pallets from the bonfire site beside the Holiday Inn in Hope Street.
In previous years hotel guests had complained of the smell of smoke and anti-social behaviour at the site.
Sinn Fein, Alliance, and SDLP councillors claimed that the council had removed and stored the pallets without consultation with them.
Sinn Fein's group leader at City Hall Jim McVeigh accused the council of "facilitating illegal bonfires".