Belfast council's bonfire policy up in smoke as firm quits contract
Belfast City Council's policy on removing material from bonfires lies in tatters after the contractor employed withdrew its services following violence in nationalist areas.
An internal City Hall email, seen by this newspaper, reveals fears that council vehicles would be hijacked by youths angry that pallets had been lifted from nationalist bonfires.
In the document, the council admits it is "no longer in a position to assist with the removal of any bonfire as the contractor has withdrawn, citing increasing tensions and significant health and safety concerns".
It says that "council officers are also not in a position to directly involve themselves in the removal of any bonfire material".
The council's decision will be seen as a massive climbdown on the issue.
Just last week, it voted to give its officers the power to order the removal of bonfire material from public and private land in Belfast. The move was supported by Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance but opposed by unionist councillors.
The decision was seen as setting a precedent for lifting material from loyalist bonfires next year.
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But sources said that if the council couldn't deal with the response from "a relatively small number of nationalist youths", it was unlikely to be able to implement the policy with far bigger Eleventh Night bonfires in 2018.
A council-employed contractor removed bonfire material from Divis and the Markets areas on Monday morning but this led to violence in several nationalist areas across the city.
Growing concern for the safety of staff resulted in City Hall ordering employees to remove their cars from a city centre car park and advising them not to use the exit in the Markets area where there have been serious disturbances.
The dramatic step was taken to close community centres in three nationalist areas last night amid fears that they would be attacked.
The details of the emergency response to the situation on the ground was contained in an email to councillors from City Hall's director of city and neighbourhood services, former PSNI Belfast commander Nigel Grimshaw.
Some youths in nationalist areas reacted violently to the move on their bonfires, claiming it was unfair that they were targeted while the council hadn't taken practical action against loyalist bonfires last month.
Mr Grimshaw revealed that a planned cleansing operation in the New Lodge area yesterday had to be cancelled as the contractor "withdrew their services, citing increasing tensions and significant health and safety concerns".
He said that the local authority "has been made aware of unsubstantiated speculation in relation to the potential for a council vehicle to be hijacked".
Two council vehicles were stoned by youths in west Belfast yesterday.
The windscreen of one was broken and the driver sustained a minor head cut from broken glass.
In his email, Mr Grimshaw disclosed that community centres in the New Lodge, Markets, and Divis areas were closed yesterday evening as was a council car park near the city centre.
The situation regarding the closures is to be reassessed today.
The correspondence continued: "There may be some minor impacts to cleansing and parks services but efforts are being made to ensure they are kept to a minimum, whilst taking in to account our obligations to staff health and safety."
Mr Grimshaw said that while police had no knowledge of a specific threat against council officers, they are "aware of tensions".
The situation is "being monitored on an ongoing basis and staff health and safety remains our focus".
He added: "Relevant service managers and staff - particularly in liveried vans - have been updated on tensions throughout the day and vigilance in carrying out duties has been advised."
In a separate correspondence, the closure of the main car park used by council staff was ordered by City Hall.
The gates of the Raphael Street car park in the Markets area were shut at 4.30pm.
Employees were told not to use the Stewart Street exit in the Markets "but instead turn left out of the car park on to Cromac Street".
A spokeswoman for Belfast City Council last night confirmed the stoning of two council vehicles in west Belfast and the closure of the three community centres but made no comment on the contractor's withdrawal from removing bonfire material or on the details of Mr Grimshaw's email.