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Belfast council's move to store bonfire pallets will be investigated by chief executive

By Allan Preston

An investigation into why Belfast City Council agreed to store wooden pallets for a loyalist bonfire has been agreed.

Efforts were made to discuss the issue behind closed doors at last night's City Hall meeting, but councillors voted to allow the public and press to stay for the announcement.

The probe will examine why the council stored 3,000 wooden pallets for loyalist bonfire builders on Chobham and Hope Street.

The controversy surrounding the matter intensified after the Belfast Telegraph revealed they had been stolen from council premises on the Gransha Road.

The DUP have supported the investigation, but have insisted the council did not act inappropriately.

Last night Sinn Fein councillor Jim McVeigh raised the issue, prompting an immediate vote on whether it should be aired in public.

The vote passed by 34 votes to 19, with a number of unionist politicians opposing.

Before speaking Mr McVeigh was warned by the Lord Mayor Nuala McAllister to make sure "your behaviour and conduct is fitting of the office which you hold".

Mr McVeigh told the meeting: "It's time to call a spade a spade. Bonfires are not culture, they're anti-culture."

He added that most councillors had been "kept in the dark" about the decision to store the pallets and that it had "seriously damaged the reputation of this council across this city in the minds of many, many people".

Mr McVeigh then circulated terms of reference for the investigation which were agreed.

The document stated that the investigation by the chief executive was to be conducted with "independent assessment of the evidence".

In addition it suggests that the council establish a mechanism for staff who may wish to make disclosures on the matter, either directly or anonymously.

Prior to last night's meeting, a concerned council employee told the Belfast Telegraph that frontline staff were now worried 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."

In response, the council's director of city and neighbourhood services, Nigel Grimshaw, urged staff to come to him with any concerns.

"There is potential that tensions may rise in some communities over the days ahead. Your safety and welfare is of paramount importance," he told staff.

"I would ask any member of staff with any concerns to contact their supervisor/manager in order that appropriate support can be considered."

A council spokeswoman said that while no threats had been made, "we take the safety of our staff extremely seriously".

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