Heated debate is in store at Belfast city hall over stolen bonfire pallets
Nationalists and unionists may clash tonight as Belfast councillors meet for the first time since 3,000 pallets being stored for loyalist bonfire makers were stolen from council premises.
An investigation into the theft, and how the council controversially came to store the pallets in the first place, is under way.
City Hall sources said unionists were not planning to raise the issue, but believe that Sinn Fein may well do so.
The theft, which was revealed by the Belfast Telegraph, has been described as farcical by Alliance, Sinn Fein and the SDLP who expressed fury that the wood was being stored by the council.
The pallets were removed from bonfire sites near Chobham Street in east Belfast and the Holiday Inn in Sandy Row. They were due to be returned to bonfire builders in the run-up to the eleventh night.
They were in storage on council land on the Gransha Road, near the La Mon Hotel, when they were stolen. A loyalist demand that the council replace the stolen pallets has been refused.
Meanwhile, Nigel Grimshaw, the council's director of city and neighbourhood services, has contacted staff asking them to raise with him any security concerns they have.
The move came after a council employee told the Belfast Telegraph that frontline staff feared they could be at risk from loyalists.
"There is a real danger that angry loyalists will vent their fury on us," the source 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."
Mr Grimshaw, a former PSNI Belfast Area Commander, raised the concerns with staff.
"There is potential that tensions may rise in some communities over the days ahead. Your safety and welfare is of paramount importance," he wrote.
"I would ask any member of staff with any concerns to contact their supervisor/manager in order that appropriate support can be considered."
In a statement, a council spokeswoman said that no specific threats against staff had been received.
But she added: "We take the safety of our staff extremely seriously.
"We are acutely aware of the potential community tensions which can arise at this time of year associated with bonfires.
"Belfast City Council continues to deliver all of its services across every part of our city and will take all necessary steps to ensure staff can do so in a safe environment."
by suzanne breen