Belfast council staff 'fearing for safety' after bonfire pallets theft
Belfast City Council workers say they fear their safety is at risk after 3,000 pallets stored for loyalist bonfire makers were stolen from council premises. The Belfast Telegraph yesterday revealed the theft of the material, which the council was holding and was due to return to loyalists in the run-up to the Eleventh Night.
Councillors from across the political divide yesterday voted unanimously to launch an investigation into the matter. A City Hall employee last night said he feared that front line council staff could now be at risk from attack.
"There is a real danger that angry loyalists will vent their fury on us," he said.
"Some of us feel very vulnerable. Some of us are engaging with bonfire builders and loyalist community people on a daily basis and we fear the repercussions. We could now be targeted through no fault of our own.
"The council's first duty as a responsible employer is to protect its workers and minimise their risk of potential harm."
A council spokeswoman last night said: "Belfast City Council take the safety of staff extremely seriously. We would encourage any member of staff with specific concerns to report them to their supervisor or manager immediately so that appropriate support can be provided."
The council's strategic policy and resources committee met yesterday after this newspaper reported that 3,000 pallets in safe keeping had been stolen from council premises on the Gransha Road in east Belfast.
Sources described the meeting as "very heated and quite confrontational" with "emotional exchanges between councillors and council officers, which are rare".
One insider said: "I have never witnessed such a highly charged committee meeting before."
The committee voted for an immediate investigation, headed by the council's chief executive Suzanne Wylie.
It will address City Hall's controversial decision to remove and store pallets from bonfire sites near Chobham Street in east Belfast and the Holiday Inn in Sandy Row, and their subsequent theft.
The investigation will also review the entire bonfire issue and how the council handles it.
The motion was proposed by Alliance group leader Michael Long and supported by Sinn Fein, SDLP and all the unionist parties.
Councillor Long told the Belfast Telegraph: "The theft of the pallets has exposed the bonfire situation as shambolic. Belfast City Council should never have been storing the pallets in the first place. Doing so sends out the wrong message. The theft of these pallets is the cherry on the cake of this farce."
Mr Long said it was a "wake-up call that things need to change". He added: "The council's reputation has been damaged. There is no way to avoid that now. While council officers are in a very difficult position in the face of growing paramilitary control, we must reassess the decision-making process, standing together as we move forward."
Sinn Fein's group leader Jim McVeigh claimed that information about the theft of the pallets was "withheld" from his party during its discussions with council officials on Thursday.
"This came on top of repeated instances of information relating to the council's conduct on bonfires being withheld from Sinn Fein," he said.
Mr McVeigh said that a decision had been taken that any remaining bonfire material being held by the council wouldn't be returned "and, importantly, that the storing of material for bonfires will never happen again".
He added: "Sinn Fein will be monitoring the investigation closely. This is a disgraceful episode, which will need thoroughly investigated. The ratepayers and citizens of Belfast deserve no less than the highest standards from their council and on this occasion clearly those standards have not been met."
SDLP group leader Tim Attwood said that people across Belfast were incensed about how City Hall had handled the matter.
"The images of pallets being stored has done reputational damage to the council. We cannot be held to ransom by some paramilitary or criminal organisations. The SDLP supports a full investigation by Belfast City Council, with independent input, into the handling of bonfires and bonfire material and the drawing up of clear guidelines and processes on how we deal with bonfires and material," he said.