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The scene in a lane just off Sandwith Street Upper in the wake of last May's tent burning. Sam Boal
burning out

Five arrests over Sandwith St burning as gardaí trawl CCTV and phone data to find arsonists

Gardaí are investigating almost 20 fires at various sites across the country.

WHILE CALLS HAVE been made for swift arrests, gardaí investigating the arson attacks on buildings associated with anti-migrant protests will need time to find the evidence to link suspects to the crimes, a former garda investigator has said. 

Fires have ripped through at least 18 properties that have either been contracted to house refugees and migrants, or which have been the subject of rumours that they will be used for that purpose.

In the days and weeks before some of the fires, protests occurred near some of the sites in question.

There have now been seven arrests in regard to a fire in Kerry and another in Dublin – two in Killarney and five in Dublin. Two men have appeared in court in Kerry.

Tony Gallagher is a former Garda Inspector, who retired recently, and investigated a number of arsons including a fatal incident in Ballyfermot. 

He has said that the difficulty in finding evidence to link people to the crime could require months of detailed unglamorous police work. Forensics will play a role, he said, but so will CCTV trawls, phone traffic and ultimately the solution may lay in a witness coming forward with a critical bit of detail.  

2021 investigation by Noteworthy — The Journal’s investigative platform — pointed to an arson attack at The Caiseal Mara in Moville, Co Donegal in November 2018 as the first significant physical manifestation of a wave of anti-migrant sentiment around that time. 

Similar fires have spread across the State in the years since and have, allegedly, included an arson attack on Sinn Féin TD Martin Kenny’s car. 

They have occurred at properties in areas as diverse as Cork, Dublin city, Galway and Wexford.

In Ringsend, a vacant pub was burned after Christmas despite the property not being intended for use to house migrants; instead, it was due to house homeless families. 

The most recent arson attack occurred last weekend at the former St Brigid’s Nursing Home in Crooksling, Brittas in Co Dublin, which went up in flames in an incident that saw over 40 firefighters called in to bring the situation under control.

In recent weeks, senior members of the Government have faced questions over whether anyone would be held to account over the emerging trend.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar are among those who have expressed confidence that arrests would be made, though this is yet to happen.

That is not to say that gardaí are not investigating the incidents; they are, and multiple sources have stressed that the complexity of the probes is only made more difficult by the fact that many of the locations are in isolated areas with no witnesses and little to no CCTV.

But there are signs of some progress, with a number of court appearances in recent months.

Five people were also arrested in connection with an attack on tents at Sandwith Street in Dublin. According to sources, a file is currently with the Director of Public Prosecutions to determine if those people will be charged.

The Sandwith Street incident was the burning of tents belonging to homeless refugees at a makeshift camp after demonstrations by anti-migrant protesters. Footage of the scene was shared widely online and captured tents and furniture on fire. Five people have been detained over the incident since.

The homes of some suspects have also been searched in Galway, during which phones and other devices were seized.   

If a charge for any of the fires is to be brought, it is likely to be for arson, which can carry a maximum sentence of 10 years along with a €10,000 fine. 

Gardaí can make arrests only if they have a reasonable cause that the person has committed an offence.

Sources have said that social media posts – such as those that are shared during protests at buildings before they are set alight – do not legally meet the threshold of “causation”, as there is nothing definitive that can connect someone’s social media commentary with a subsequent fire.

Garda investigations

Gardaí across the country have established incident rooms, generally used for the most serious of crimes such as murders, to develop the evidence to prosecute potential suspects.

Senior gardaí of Detective Inspector rank are leading many of the investigations.  

One source, who has knowledge of the progress of the various probes, said assistance has been offered to those teams from specialist national units. Intelligence gathered by garda analysts is also being used. 

The Journal understands that one major component of the investigations is an intensive trawl of CCTV that spreads out around the routes of the various sites and seeks to establish a pattern of movement of cars and people on foot.

Intelligence operations are identifying suspects, either on the grapevine or from social media. Connections are then drawn up by documenting their involvement with like-minded individuals.

Another side of the investigation is phone traffic and the location data of phones of suspects – when phones are seized by investigators they are examined for messages, phone calls and search queries.

Sources said there will be the need to then forensically examine these phones using specialist software. Gardaí in the past have sent phones abroad to access the information of encrypted devices. 

3 DUBLIN FIRE PHOTO DUBLIN FIRE BRIGADE_90696294 Fire fighters battle a blaze at a vacant pub in Ringsend which had been due to house families experiencing homelessness. Dublin Fire Brigade Dublin Fire Brigade

There will also be a need for close liaisons with social media companies and there may be a need for law enforcement to seek warrants in other jurisdictions to access some of the information contained on servers. 

While we have been unable to determine if gardaí have harvested forensics identifying suspects from the scenes, sources believe that it is unlikely that traces will be found. 

As one source said: “Fire burns evidence and these fires have seen those buildings completely gutted for the most part. There is the added issue that these people are likely being very careful forensically.”


Tony Gallagher, is a former Garda Inspector, who retired recently. He has successfully investigated arsons in the past including the case of Anthony Locke who admitted to setting the fire that killed two people in a blaze in the midst of a pyromaniac spree.   

The Irish Times reported at the time that Gerard Kavanagh (30) and his girlfriend Mary Core (29) died of smoke inhalation after their flat above Thrifty’s shop at Decies Road, Ballyfermot, was set ablaze on 18 February 1995.

Mary Core was 36 weeks pregnant at the time and was delivered of a stillborn boy by caesarean section after the fire.

Gallagher, who had worked as a detective for part of his service before leading operational garda units in Mountjoy Garda Station, now works as a security consultant with Ashtree Risk Group. 

“The two most difficult crimes to investigate,” Gallagher said, “are burglaries and arsons”. 

506St Brigid's Nursing Home_90698530 Gardaí at the scene of the incident this weekend in Brittas.

He backed up the statement that the perpetrators are “forensically aware” and “layer up” to prevent leaving traces at the scene. 

He believes lengthy trawls of CCTV and phone traffic will likely be key to potentially solving the incidents.  

“This is all hugely intensive work and requires a team of gardaí to investigate. It makes for a very protracted investigation because hours and hours of CCTV footage must be viewed,” he added.

Gallagher recalled the horror of that fire in Ballyfermot that claimed the two lives and the unborn baby. He believes that the “recklessness and audaciousness” of the fires is at the higher end of risk that someone could be killed either inadvertently or willfully in an attack.

“It is important to say to the people involved in these crimes that your actions could take a life – whether intentionally or not. 

“The audaciousness and seriousness of the crimes will ensure that these crimes will get a very intensive investigation.

“Ultimately stopping these crimes could well depend on civic minded people who come forward and report what they saw – it is critical that the State appeals to those people,” he added.