The involvement and support of Belfast City Council for loyalist paramilitary bonfires reached farcical levels this week after 3,000 wooden pallets being stored by the council as fuel for the pyres ended up being stolen by persons unknown.
The pallets were being held for safekeeping and were due to be returned to two contentious bonfire sites.
As well as the thousands of pallets removed to storage last week from the infamous Sandy Row site, adjacent to the Holiday Inn, a further 2,500 pallets were removed from a site near Chobham Street in east Belfast. In previous years local families have had to be evacuated as a towering pile was set ablaze just 30 feet away from their homes.
Apart from the obvious fire hazard, both are notorious for their sectarian displays, implicit death threats and outbreaks of violence.
It is not known who carried out the raid at council land in east Belfast, but speculation includes republican activists, rival loyalists, as well as the manufacturers from whom the pallets were originally stolen by loyalists in the first place.
The bonfire gangs are now understood to be furious at the theft of ‘their’ material, and are absurdly demanding that the council buys them new pallets to replace the ones taken away.
“The whole episode is farcical,” a City Hall official told journalists. “The council has got its fingers badly burnt and is paying the price for not having the guts to deal with the bonfire issue properly in the first place.”
Sinn Fein, Alliance, and SDLP councillors, who jointly hold a majority on the council, claimed that the council had removed and stored the pallets without consultation with them.
Sinn Fein’s group leader at City Hall Jim McVeigh accused the council of “facilitating illegal bonfires”. Both of the bonfire groups have previously been heavily subsidised by the council.
A meeting of a council committee on Friday called for an investigation and an end to the storage of bonfire material.
“This is a disgraceful episode, which will need thoroughly investigated,” Mr Mc Veigh said.
“The ratepayers and citizens of Belfast deserve no less than the highest standards from their council and on this occasion clearly those standards have not been met.
“Sinn Fein will be monitoring the investigation closely.”
Meanwhile, nationalist residents in west Belfast cancelled a planned protest against a sectarian parade today [Saturday] in the wake of a Parades Commission ruling banning the annual Orange Order parade from its contentious route.
Up to 950 people and 15 bands are taking part in the Orange Order’s contentious Whiterock parade today. But for the second year running the Orange Order was rerouted away from a peace line at the Springfield Road.
There was serious violence in 2005 after the commission banned a similar parade from passing through Workman Avenue onto the Springfield Road.
Orangemen were allowed to walk along a stretch of the Springfield Road under the restriction of playing only hymn music and only carrying specified banners and flags.
The Orange Order said it felt “disgust and anger” at the decision, but residents’ spokesman Sean Murray described the Parades Commission’s decision as “balanced and proportionate”.