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Leah Farrell

'Someone could be killed': Fears grow as gardaí probe 'worrying trend' of arson attacks

No arrests have been made to date but a number of investigations are ongoing.

THE HEAD OF an anti-racism organisation has accused the Government and An Garda Síochána of not taking the rise of the far-right seriously amid a growing trend of arson attacks and anti-immigration protests.

Shane O’Curry, the director of the Irish Network Against Racism (Inar), has expressed concern that the issue will only be taken seriously if a person is badly injured or killed.

However, garda sources have said the force is taking the issue very seriously amid a number of ongoing investigations.

There have been around 20 arson attacks, or attempted attacks, on properties earmarked to house international protection applicants across Ireland in the last five years.

The Journal understands there have been no arrests in relation to the arson attacks to date, including the recent incidents in Ringsend in Dublin and Rosscahill in Galway.

The motive of a suspected arson attack at a former school in Tipperary last night is also being investigated by gardaí. 

The old Shipwright Pub on Thorncastle Street in Ringsend was set ablaze in the early hours of Sunday morning amid speculation it was going to be used to house immigrants.

However, as reported by The Journal last month, the property was due to house homeless families.

No-one was in the building at the time of the incident but there was substantial damage caused to the property.

Speaking to The Journal today, O’Curry was critical over the lack of arrests to date.

“What’s it going to take for the guards to take this seriously? Are we going to have another Rostock, where asylum centres were burned down and people were killed?

“Is it going to take a Rostock for society, for our Government and for our police service to have its wake up call and finally act to protect people from this menace?”

Large anti-immigration riots in the German city of Rostock in the early 1990s sparked a wider wave of anti-immigration sentiment and violence around the country. There was an increase in physical attacks on migrants and refugees, and a number of people were killed in arson attacks on properties housing immigrants.

O’Curry said Inar and others have been raising concerns about the far-right – and the spread of disinformation and incitement to violence – for several years.

“This has been an ongoing concern of ours for a number of years really.

We have always maintained that there is a threat to public order, to public safety, posed by the far-right.

O’Curry said he hoped the rioting which occurred in Dublin city on 23 November would have been a “wake up call” for gardaí and the Department of Justice, but he doesn’t believe it was.

Over 30 people were charged in relation to the riots in the capital and there was an increased garda presence on the streets in the aftermath of the violence.

Screenshot 2024-01-04 174754 Buses and cars were set on fire on O'Connell Street on 23 November 2023 Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

But O’Curry said more needs to be done in terms of targeting the far-right, stating: “I’ve seen no evidence of them taking it more seriously, ever since what most of us would have thought would be a wake up call [the riots].

“We’re just not seeing anything being done. There are people who are clearly inciting others to carry out acts of violence [who are not being arrested].

“Inar and other civil society organisations have passed on information that’s readily available in the public domain about individuals – clearly demonstrating that they are inciting hatred – to the guards and nothing appears to have been done.

We’ve also made numerous representations expressing alarm in general about what appears to be a softly-softly approach to the far-right and a failure to recognise a threat to public order, to society as well, from the far-right.

“In relation to specific so-called protest camps, local gardaí don’t understand that it’s in the public interest to move these on, to stop places where vulnerable people are going to be housed from being the targets of public ire and hate,” O’Curry said.

CCTV issues

Multiple garda investigations into the Ringsend, Rosscahill and other arson attacks around the country are ongoing. Each probe is led by a Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) and incident rooms with a team of gardaí are working on the cases.

As with all major crimes, a team of detectives are tasked with carrying out enquiries and interviewing witnesses. One key job, a source said, was the collection of CCTV.

A complicating factor for investigators is that a number of the incidents happened at isolated buildings, with some approaches across farmland, meaning there is not a great deal of security cameras available.

However, it is hoped that the Ringsend fire may provide the best chance of good quality CCTV because of its location in Dublin city. Gardaí are currently harvesting critical data across the area as they gather evidence.

Sources have also said that, depending on the needs of individual SIOs, national units can be requested to help. It is believed that national units have been requested in some instances.

These include the Special Detective Unit – which monitors subversive and terrorist activity, analysts from Crime and Security, as well as advanced experts in forensics and cyber crime.

There is also work being done by divisional and district level intelligence officers, known as collators. These officers are compiling lists of and monitoring certain people in wider local areas close to where specific incidents have taken place. Social media posts by these people are also being monitored.

Gardaí occasionally, as with the Dublin riot, group crimes together. It is understood that the arson attacks have not been grouped or “cased” as of yet.

In relation to protests outside certain premises, a spokesperson for An Garda Síochána said: “There is a constitutional right to the freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, subject to statutory provisions. An Garda Síochána respects the right for citizens to exercise their constitutional rights.”

They added that gardaí have no role in “permitting or authorising public gatherings”.

“Where necessary An Garda Síochána put in place appropriate and proportionate policing plans to monitor public gatherings. Any Garda activity in relation to evolving events will be in line with this graduated policing response taking into account relevant legislation and public safety.”

‘Extremely worrying trend’

When asked about the situation today, Higher Education Minister Simon Harris said he believes that gardaí are taking the arson attacks “very seriously”.

What we’re seeing is an extremely worrying trend happening where, on an all too frequent basis, arson attacks are happening on vacant buildings across our country.

“We’ve seen it in urban areas, we’ve seen it in rural areas. I know the gardaí take this extraordinarily seriously, I know there are ongoing active serious criminal investigations.”

Harris told reporters in Dublin that people across the political spectrum have rightly condemned the arson attacks, adding that it was “extremely worrying at a time of a real shortage of housing supply”.

“We as a Government – and people on building sites right across the country on a daily basis – are working to try and grow supply, but we see thugs and criminals torching buildings that could be made available to provide shelter to people.

“It is an extremely serious and concerning situation and one that is being treated by the gardaí as such.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice noted that Minister Helen McEntee stated this week that arson is “a very serious crime which carries heavy prison sentences” and “no one has the right to cause damage to property, to cause fear or to threaten public order.”

The spokesperson said gardaí are “doing everything possible to investigate the causes of the fire in both Ringsend and Galway last month and the Minister would encourage anyone with any information in relation to the incidents to contact An Garda Síochána”.

“Both the Minister and the Department are fully committed to the fight against racism, prejudice and bigotry, and strongly condemn the actions of those who abuse and attack others because of their own prejudices against a person’s religion, ethnic origins or nationality, sexual orientation or any other part of their identity as a human being.

Ireland is a diverse and tolerant country, and such behaviour is not acceptable.

They added that the hate crime legislation currently being debated by the Oireachtas will help ensure “vulnerable and minority communities can feel safe and are safe in Ireland”.

‘A very dangerous message’

O’Curry said Inar has received a large number of reports about immigrants and refugees being subjected to verbal and physical attacks in recent months.

In some cases, victims have said they will not report the incidents to gardaí because they believe it will not be taken seriously.

IMG_3150 The Shipwright Pub pictured on Monday, a day after the fire Nicky Ryan / The Journal Nicky Ryan / The Journal / The Journal

O’Curry said many immigrants and asylum seekers “feel increasingly fearful about going about their everyday business, you know, going to the shops, going to public places, sending their children to school, going to their places of work, taking public transport”.

In recent days, some politicians have suggested that the arson attack in Ringsend would not have taken place if the public knew that the property was going to be used to house homeless people, rather than asylum seekers.

O’Curry said the idea that there are “undeserving” and “deserving” people “sends a very dangerous message”.

If somebody is in need of accommodation because they’re homeless, they’re in need of accommodation [regardless of where they're from].

He said the only way to solve the issue is for policy decisions to be made that will solve the wider housing and homelessness crisis.

“Then you will solve the problems for Irish homeless people as well as people seeking international protection. It is not people seeking international protection that are the cause of the housing and homelessness crisis. And everybody knows that,” O’Curry said.

‘Bad faith actors spreading misinformation’

Claire Byrne, a Green Party councillor in Dublin’s south inner city, agreed that people in need of housing should not be split into “deserving” and “undeserving” groups.

“Someone in need of housing is someone in need of housing,” she said.

In a statement issued about the Ringsend attack this week, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) said: “We have a number of families who are currently homeless and seeking accommodation in the area so it is very disappointing.

“Families who experience homelessness are like any other; some are working, all are trying to juggle schools and busy lives as well as looking for somewhere to rent.

If we cannot open facilities, there is a risk that families will not have access to basic shelter.

Byrne said it was “really unfair” the “finger had been pointed” at the DRHE and it was “totally distracting from what the wider issue is”.

“We have had bad faith actors deliberately spreading misinformation and carrying out protests and now we have ended up with criminal action against a building that was supposed to house families and it’s now been put out of use for anyone.

“That’s the real issue. It doesn’t matter who told what when, or who was being housed.

There is now a building that has been completely put out of use for a significant length of time, I think that is what the real issue is.

It is not common practice for the DRHE to give advance notice that homeless people are going to be housed in a certain property, as it could stigmatise them or put them in danger, Byrne said.

She stated that even if councillors were given advance notice of people moving into a property, it would be a formality, not a reason to “start protests or more cynical or criminal action”.

“It certainly doesn’t give people a veto on who is housed and who isn’t housed,” she added.

When protests happened outside the disused pub in Ringsend before Christmas, Byrne said she contacted the DRHE and they confirmed that the property was due to be used for homeless families.

She and others made this information public but incorrect rumours stating that the property was going to house asylum seekers had already been widely spread online.

“I knew that it wasn’t intended to be used for refugees, but at the same time it really shouldn’t matter.”

Byrne said if politicians were in the position of “picking and choosing who gets housed and where” that would set a “very dangerous” precedent.

She added that the arson attack is not reflective of the wider Ringsend community who are welcoming to those in need.

Contains reporting by Niall O’Connor and Jane Matthews

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