Belfast Telegraph

No minutes of Belfast council meeting about storing loyalists' bonfire pallets

 

By Suzanne Breen

No minutes or written records exist of a series of key meetings which led to Belfast City Council's controversial decision to store around 2,500 bonfire pallets which were later stolen.

The Belfast Telegraph has exclusively obtained the report by former Northern Ireland Ombudsman Tom Frawley, who was asked to investigate events around the council's handling of Eleventh Night bonfires last summer.

Mystery has surrounded who in City Hall proposed and approved the decision to store the material for loyalist bonfire builders, which was heavily criticised by nationalist and Alliance councillors. Sinn Fein accused the council of facilitating "illegal bonfires".

The council is set to vote tonight on redacting the names and positions of City Hall staff mentioned in the 115-page report. However, the Belfast Telegraph has a copy of the unredacted document.

Today we can reveal that it was former senior PSNI officer Nigel Grimshaw, the council's director of city and neighbourhood services, who "directed that preparations and plans should be made with a view to removing the material" from the bonfire at Bloomfield Walkway, near Chobham Street, in east Belfast in May 2017.

Mr Grimshaw, who was the PSNI's Belfast area commander until he took up his council post two years ago, told the investigation he had asked that "elected members should be briefed urgently to ascertain their views before any action took place".

A meeting later took place between two other council officers and UUP councillor Jim Rodgers, the DUP's Aileen Graham, and Alliance's David Armitage. But no minutes were taken of this meeting and there is disagreement over what was said.

Mr Grimshaw told the investigation that the reason he ordered the removal and storage of the material was so the council would have control over it "with a view to having further discussions with those organising the bonfire regarding (its) size, composition and siting".

Last summer the council refused to say if its chief executive Suzanne Wylie (below) knew bonfire material was being stored. Ms Wylie's recollection to the investigation was that Mr Grimshaw had "made her aware informally that bonfire material was building up at Bloomfield Walkway and that officers were addressing the issue".

She said he later informed her that pallets had been removed from the site "but had not made her aware of the volume of material involved" and she had no recollection of any discussion "about the pallets being returned" to the bonfire builders.

When asked to comment on the issues raised in the report, a council spokeswoman last night said: "Dr Frawley's bonfire review report was presented at a special meeting of council's strategic policy and resources committee on March 27. The committee's recommendations on next steps will go forward to full council for ratification at its next meeting on April 9."

The pallets were removed on May 11 last year using a low loader lorry and taken to the council-owned Beechvale Farm on the Gransha Road in east Belfast. The locked compound where they were due to be stored was full so they were kept in an open area, from where they were stolen the next month.

The council paid a contractor £3,000 to remove the pallets and £4,500 was later spent lifting and disposing of 12 tonnes of further material at Bloomfield Walkway, bringing the total spend to £7,500.

The proposal to lift and store the pallets emerged at a meeting in the Park Avenue Hotel in east Belfast on May 4 between two council officials and two members of the newly-formed Bloomfield Community Support Group. It wanted the bonfire to join the council's bonfire programme to qualify for funding.

The group asked the council to remove the pallets from the bonfire site, store them at the farm, and return them. The council has no notes or records discussions at that meeting. City Hall's failure to take minutes at meetings or have written records of discussions reflects a similar absence of note-taking at Stormont. Mr Frawley says he has not been "able to be definitive" about some details in his report due to reasons including "some individuals' inability to recall certain events; differing recollections to key discussions and decisions; and an apparent absence of written records relating to those discussion and decisions".

The report details previous incidents of material being removed from east Belfast bonfire sites. In June 2016, 872 pallets were lifted from land beside Avoniel Leisure Centre. They were stored and later returned at a cost of £3,600.

Council officials told Mr Frawley the action was approved by east Belfast councillors. "Surprisingly, however, there is no record of how and when this engagement with elected members took place," he says.

In March 2017, the council ordered the removal and disposal of material from the Flora Street and Bloomfield Walkway bonfire sites.

But pallets soon began amassing at Bloomfield Walkway again. Council officials regarded the newly-formed community group's request in May that the material be lifted and stored positively. Following Mr Grimshaw's request that councillors be briefed and their views sought on removing the pallets, an email was sent to 13 unionist and Alliance councillors in the area inviting them to a meeting of the East Belfast bonfire steering group to discuss "emerging issues around certain bonfires" and to give "an opportunity to decide upon a common stance with regard to the agreed council direction going forward towards July".

A further email was sent to Sinn Fein councillors Deirdre Hargey and Mairead O'Donnell, who were not members of the group, extending the invitation to them.

But only three councillors - the UUP's Mr Rodgers, the DUP's Ms Graham, and Alliance's Mr Armitage - attended the meeting at which two council officers and a neighbourhood police officer were present.

No minutes were taken at the meeting.

The report says there is "some variation" in officers' and councillors' recollections of the discussion.

The most senior council officer present said she briefed members "on the suggestion that the bonfire material would be removed, stored and returned at the end of June 2017". She claimed each of the elected members present had "sanctioned the proposed action".

Council officials believed storing the material would reduce the negative impact of the bonfire on residents. Councillor Armitage told the investigation that he recalled council officials seeking support to remove pallets and return "just enough" for the bonfire.

"He confirmed it was made clear at the meeting that action being proposed was the removal, storage and return of bonfire materials," the report states.

Mr Armitage told the investigation that while he had seen merit in the suggestion, he wanted to discuss the proposal with party colleagues.

Councillor Graham said her recollection was that officers had proposed removing, storing and returning all the material with the bonfire builders' agreement. She thought it "not an ideal solution" but it was "the only available option".

Councillor Rodgers provided a written submission to the investigation that said it had been unanimously agreed that officers speak to bonfire builders to reach an arrangement that the material be removed, stored, and returned.

The following day, a council official emailed all 19 east Belfast councillors giving details of the removal of the material. But no mention was made of it being stored or of plans to return it.

In mid-June media reports revealed that the council had removed and was storing pallets for a bonfire in Hope Street, near Sandy Row. Sinn Fein demanded that no bonfire material was returned until a council committee met on June 26.

In correspondence, council officials agreed that the Bloomfield Walkway material couldn't go back before this meeting. On June 21, Mr Grimshaw reported to senior officers that the 2,500 pallets may have been stolen.

City Hall didn't go public with this development but sources told the Belfast Telegraph and we reported the theft of the pallets in our June 23 edition. In the wake of the fiasco, Mr Frawley was appointed to investigate the council's actions.

In his report, he concludes that officers "did what they did, motivated by the right reasons rooted in public service values but without political cover and in the absence of a robust governance framework".

Timeline of a controversy: how the problem unfolded

July 2015: Bloomfield Walkway bonfire near Chobham Street forces 50 families to flee their homes.

July 2016: A play park is moved to facilitate the bonfire. Houses are boarded up.

May 2017: 2,500 pallets are amassed at the bonfire site. A secret meeting takes place between a new local community group and City Hall officials. The group asks the council to remove and store pallets until nearer the 11th night. It wants to enter the council’s bonfire management programme and apply for funding. No minutes are taken of the meeting.

May 2017: The council’s director of city and neighbourhood services Nigel Grimshaw directs that plans are made to remove the pallets but says councillors’ views must be first sought.

May 2017: Three councillors — the UUP’s Jim Rodgers, Alliance’s David Armitage, and the DUP’s Aileen Graham — attend a meeting with council officers but what transpires is disputed. No minutes are taken.

May 2017: The pallets are lifted and stored at a cost of £3,000.

May 2017: Council chief executive Suzanne Wylie recalls being told about the removal but not that the material is being stored.

June 2017: The pallets are stolen from council land. Nationalist politicians accuse the council of facilitating illegal bonfires. An investigation into City Hall’s actions is ordered.

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