Northern Ireland news

Council staff who stored pallets 'motivated by right reasons'

The Eleventh Night bonfire near Sandy Row last year
Brendan Hughes

SENIOR staff at Belfast City Council did not consult councillors when they agreed to store pallets for a loyalist bonfire which damaged a city centre apartment block.

Officials also gave a "written assurance" to bonfire builders that the hundreds of pallets would be returned to the site near Sandy Row before the Eleventh Night.

Around 300 pallets were moved from the Hope Street location – beside Victoria Place flats and Holiday Inn hotel – to a council yard off Ormeau Road last year.

Belfast City Council (BCC) vans were sent to move the materials and a Housing Executive (NIHE) contractor provided a skip lorry and two skips to assist.

No minutes or written records were made of key discussions that led to the divisive move.

The pallets were due to be returned to the bonfire site, but after The Irish News revealed the council was storing them, councillors blocked the plan.

On July 11 when the bonfire was lit, windows were cracked and damaged at Victoria Place flats due to heat from the pyre.

Details of BCC's actions are contained in a report examining how it ended up storing the pallets without the knowledge of most councillors.

The investigation was launched last year after the The Irish News revealed around 300 were being stored for the Hope Street pyre and around 2,500 pallets for east Belfast's Bloomfield Walkway.

Some details from the report emerged in a leak to the media earlier this week, but the council has since published the full report, although the identities of staff involved have been redacted.

The probe, headed by former Northern Ireland Ombudsman Tom Frawley, found no minutes or written records exist of key meetings.

Mr Frawley also said he found it "surprising" that some people involved expressed their "inability to recall some details of the events I was asked to examine".

For the Walkway bonfire, attempts were made by staff to arrange a meeting with east Belfast councillors at short notice to seek their views on storing and returning pallets, but only three councillors attended.

However for the Hope Street site, Mr Frawley found there was "no record of similar consideration of securing the views of elected members".

The council's chief executive, Suzanne Wylie, told the probe she first became aware of BCC storing pallets for the Hope Street bonfire after reading about it in The Irish News.

Mr Frawley said it had been suggested to him there was a "limited window" in which officers had time to act and briefing councillors had been "pre-empted" by media interest.

But he said it was unclear why an email update could not have been provided, and media enquiries were a "clear indication" of the need to promptly inform councillors.

Mr Frawley also expressed "concern" over a lack of compliance with the council's scheme of delegation, which outlines when and how staff can make decisions instead of councillors.

He said he would have thought it appropriate for senior staff to maintain a record of delegated actions and report sensitive issues like the pallets storage to the relevant council committee.

BCC has refused to say if staff will face any disciplinary action in light of the lack of record-keeping.

Concluding his report, Mr Frawley said officials "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".

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