Belfast Telegraph

UDA boss Stitt's gang behind theft of bonfire pallets stored by Belfast City Council

Blunder puts Bangor chief on collision course with Belfast bosses.

By Sarah Henderson

A UDA gang led by notorious paramilitary Dee Stitt was behind the theft of 2,300 pallets that were being stored in secret by Belfast City Council.

The wood now adorns the publicly-paid Charter NI chief executive’s towering bonfire in Bangor’s Kilcooley estate, which is even bigger than usual.

But the flat-bed lorry burglary has backfired spectacularly as the east and south Belfast loyalists who initially collected the pallets are insisting on them being returned ahead of the Eleventh night.

Embarrassed Stitt, reluctant to dismantle his own bonfire and keen to avoid conflict, has ordered his men to go on a pallet hunting spree to satisfy the demand.

Already more than 300 pallets have been handed over by the Bangor UDA to loyalists from Chobham Street in east Belfast.

Belfast City Council had been secretly storing 2,000 of their pallets at a site on the Gransha Road ahead of next week’s bonfire.

A further 300 were being held there after being lifted from a UDA bonfire in Sandy Row. These also currently sit on Dee Stitt’s bonfire in the Kilcooley estate and have yet to be returned.

A Bangor UDA source told us: “When our men stole the pallets from the Gransha Road they didn’t know that they were being stored there by the council for bonfires on Chobham Street and Sandy Row.

“Dee thought we had touched lucky with the pallets and had his Kilcooley bonfire built early to show off. It’s bigger than ever.

“It’s only later that he was told that the pallets belonged to other bonfire builders — he hit the roof when he found out.”

Furious loyalists from Chobham Street and Sandy Row approached Stitt last weekend demanding the return of the pallets, which were stolen from the council site by the Bangor UDA on the back of a flat-bed lorry.

“Dee went into panic mode, he didn’t know what to do,” added our UDA source.

“At first he denied we stole the pallets from the council site, then he admitted it and said he would make sure they were returned. But Dee is too vain to pull down the Kilcooley bonfire and rebuild it with a smaller version, so he’s ordered us to go out and get pallets and hand them over to Chobham Street and Sandy Row.”

Stitt’s UDA gang has already given the Chobham Street bonfire builders 300 pallets, with a promise of more to come. However, Sandy Row has yet to receive a single one.

The row has further weakened Stitt’s position as UDA commander in Bangor as it has drawn him into direct conflict with rival loyalist groupings.

Our Bangor UDA source said: “The men aren’t happy, and neither is Jimmy Birch (east Belfast UDA leader), who Stitt has made a fool out of again.

“It’s 10 days until the bonfires are lit, where are we going to find another 2,000 pallets to give to Chobham Street and Sandy Row?

“The only way we could do it is to rob someone else’s bonfire. We’ve better things to be doing than running around stealing pallets.

“Stitt should just pull down the Kilcooley bonfire, hand the pallets back and rebuild it, but his ego is so big he won’t do it.”

Stitt’s involvement in the pallet theft fiasco once again calls into question his role as chief executive of Charter NI, the ex-UDA prisoners’ charity that has been put in charge of a £1.7m government employment programme in east Belfast.

The loyalist was disciplined by the organisation last year after giving a toe-curling interview during which he described his North Down Defenders flute band as “homeland security”, warning that they would defend the area from “anybody”.

The UDA gang headed by Stitt, whose £35,000 per year salary is paid from the public purse, is heavily involved in drug dealing and racketeering.

It was also behind a vicious assault on respected Bangor community worker Aaron McMahon after he challenged paramilitary flags being put in the Clandeboye area.

Belfast City Council is carrying out an internal investigation into how the decision was reached to secretly store the pallets at its Gransha Road site.

A council spokesman said: “The council cannot comment any further at this time, due to the investigation which the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee, at its meeting on Friday past, agreed would be carried out into the issue of collection and storage of bonfire material, and the future approach of bonfires across the city.”

The PSNI is also probing the theft of the pallets from the Gransha Road by Dee Stitt’s UDA gang, many of which were initially stolen from global supply-chain firm Chep.

However, it is not investigating whether the council inadvertently handled stolen goods by storing the wood for loyalist bonfire builders.

A PSNI spokesman said: “Police do not have a complaint which requires an investigation into the handling of stolen goods.”

The Chobham Street and Sandy Row bonfires that the pallets were initially collected for are among the most controversial in Northern Ireland.

In previous years residents had to be evacuated from their homes when the Chobham Street bonfire was lit just yards away on the Bloomfield Walkway.

Guests at the Holiday Inn next to the Sandy Row bonfire have also complained about the plumes of smoke blowing into their rooms and of feeling “intimidated”.

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