Belfast City Council’s Bonfire Scandal: The Key Questions

The revelation that Belfast City Council is involved in facilitating the storage of pallets (including stolen pallets) to be burnt on loyalist bonfires typically adorned with posters of nationalist politicians, Kill All Taigs-emblazoned Tricolours, Celtic shirts and a statue of the Virgin Mary would be remarkable on its own, but news that the stored pallets have been ‘stolen’ just as city councillors were set to agree that the material would not be returned to loyalists more than suggests that something is seriously rotten in the state of Denmark City Hall.

Here’s a handy recap of events to date to keep you right:

Belfast City Council, or as yet to be identified council officials, agreed to store thousands of stolen goods in the form of CHEP pallets for the convenience of as yet to be identified loyalists. A similar number of other pallets were also stored, though it is not known if they were stolen, fell off the back of lorries, were merely liberated from businesses occupying them or voluntarily donated to bonfire builders.

Once cover was blown and the story emerged into the public domain, the stolen CHEP pallets and other pallets were stolen again- this time by the UDA (according to today’s Irish News) from the council-owned yard they were being stored in- that would be the same UDA that recently publicly endorsed Emma Little Pengelly, Nigel Dodds and Gavin Robinson in the Westminster elections in the city.

Presumably the PSNI are monitoring both of the associated bonfire sites, ready to intervene once bonfire material appears on the sites again. If they are not, then we need to know if the policing plan is merely to turn a blind eye to the theft.

After a heated behind-closed-doors meeting in City Hall of the Strategic Policy committee yesterday morning, an investigation by the Chief Executive has been agreed, with an independent input. Many will be somewhat wary that the investigation is not being fully led by an independent authority given that Belfast City Council is implicated at a number of levels in this scandal.

As has been the case with other loyalist bonfire funding scandals, expect the NI Audit Office to be called in to conduct an investigation into the misuse of ratepayers’ money at some point. Sinn Fein is now openly calling on ratepayers to sue the council.

In any event, I’ve summarised many of the key questions emerging from the story which need answers in the days ahead:

  1. Who conceived of the plan to store pallets for loyalists, using Belfast City Council workers/ contractors and council owned property?
  2. What council officials knew of the plan, approved of it and worked out the ‘arrangements’ with loyalists? There must be a lengthy chain of email/ paper correspondences to identify council officials and the loyalist contacts.
  3. Were any measures taken to ensure that pallets stored were traced/ accounted for to prove that they were not stolen material in the first instance?
  4. Who were the loyalist contacts involved in the process at every stage?
  5. How much of ratepayers’ money was spent on this scheme?
  6. Were the loyalists involved asked to sign up to a code of conduct ensuring that sectarian or racist material did not appear on the associated bonfires, and that tyres would not be incorporated into the final structure? Given that the Virgin Mary herself has made an appearance on Chobham Street’s bonfire in recent years, the idea of the local loyalists being given a blank cheque to decorate the council stored and delivered pallets with whatever hate items pleases them is quite shocking. We need to know.
  7. Has this happened before in Belfast City Council, and are other councils involved in similar under radar schemes? Today’s Irish News makes reference to shipping containers being used in previous years to store wood for loyalists, which clearly implies that this has been happening for a while. We need to know for how long and who at council and loyalist level is implicated.
  8. The fact that the pallets were, ahem, ‘stolen’ in broad daylight this week in a process that would have taken many hours defies belief. Are we to believe that no one from council nor within the PSNI was aware of this beforehand or indeed throughout the entire duration of the operation? What is the status of the PSNI investigation into the incident?

A criminal act has taken place. We await the condemnation from Unionist politicians and subsequent calls for anyone with information to bring it to the PSNI. Presumably these will be forthcoming, or at least such politicians challenged to make such statements in the coming hours.