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Foreign criminals flying into Ireland to steal ESB cables, beer kegs, road signs and goal posts

There have been 48 live line thefts already this year and 43 break-ins at ESB substations.

An ESB Networks employee repairing a cable.
An ESB Networks employee repairing a cable.
Image: John Sheehan Photography

KNOWN THIEVES ARE flying into Ireland from Western Balkan countries for short periods of time to steal copper wires and other metal, causing damage to the electricity network and costing businesses money.

A campaign was launched today to highlight the problem and the dangers associated with these thefts as well as the impact it has on businesses and the wider community. Incidents across Ireland include the theft of electricity cables, copper wires, beer kegs, road signs, letter boxes and even goal posts.

Farmers with power lines on their land are affected, as well as publicans who are robbed of beer kegs. There have also been 43 break-ins to ESB Networks substations already in 2015.

At a briefing today, Assistant Garda Commissioner Derek Byrne said there has been a general rise in metal thefts since 2011 and particularly in recent months. The increase is most notable in overhead power cable thefts – the most dangerous of these criminal incidents as the gangs are dealing with live cables.

Criminal gangs

So far in 2015 there have been 48 live line thefts. Byrne said the bulk of this crime is committed by “West Balkan crime groups” with some flying in for short periods of time.

“There is a level of skill and sophistication involved in the theft of this cable,” he told reporters today. Much of this activity occurs in rural areas with gangs scouting copper cables and returning in the dead of night to cut them down, roll them up and either take them away or leave them for collection.

Though most metal dealers in Ireland are compliant and work closely with gardaí, there are some rogue traders who continue to deal with these gangs.

An Garda Síochána had some success recently when they arrested five men in connection with the theft of millions of euro worth of power lines.

Byrne said at least one of them had been detected in another country for a similar offence before and this is not just an Irish problem, it is Europe-wide.

Three have been charged and were yesterday refused bail in the High Court. Byrne said all five men arrested in connection with the theft were Romanian but had Irish addresses.

ESB disruption

Since their arrests earlier this month there have been no further cable thefts but this does not mean the problem has gone away.

ESB Networks alone faces six incidents of cable theft a week with a significant proportion of these happening on the east coast. Some 140km of copper conductor has been stolen, costing €27 million to replace and repair since 2012. Approximately 27,000 customers lost supply as a result of these thefts and there have been 81,000 customer hours lost.

Source: John Sheehan Photography

Not only are these thefts costly for the company and disruptive for customers, they also pose a huge danger to the criminals involved, to the wider public and to the workers who have to repair the damage.

At least three serious injuries and one death have been linked to metal thefts to date and Senan Colleran, Head of Distribution and Customer Services at ESB Networks said several people have been burned or have fallen from poles trying to steal wires.

Live wires are frequently left hanging down, even touching the ground sometimes causing small fires. Removing wires can also leave the wooden poles they were attached to vulnerable as they no longer have the tension of the cables keeping them up. There is a danger they could fall on passing cars if workers do not get to them quickly.

Gardaí ESB Networks and Crimestoppers today launched an appeal for the public and in particular those in farming communities with power lines on their land to be vigilant for suspicious behaviour and to come forward with information, even anonymously.

Crimestoppers is asking members of the public to call 1800 25 00 25 if they see something unusual which might be linked to metal theft. Alternatively they can contact their local garda station. If you see a live wire that has been cut, first call ESB Networks and stay well away from it.

Read: Three due in court over series of ESB cable robberies>

Read: Gardaí ‘severely disrupt’ nationwide operation by Eastern European gang>

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