Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

A double killing still unsolved as charges are brought in just one in 11 arson attacks

Criminals are behind an arson attack on someone’s home every day across Northern Ireland.

The Belfast Telegraph reveals the scale of deliberate fire-setting, with 144 blazes at residential properties in the last four months alone.

Yet in the vast majority of cases, the PSNI failed to bring charges or even arrest suspects.

There has been a surge in high-profile arson attacks across the region recently. In the most serious case, a mother and daughter were killed in Dungannon when arsonists set light to wheelie bins, causing an inferno which swept through their flat.

Jim Wells, who is deputy chair of Stormont’s health and public safety committee, urged arsonists to consider the consequences which their actions could have.

He said: “The people behind arson attacks may not fully realise the danger caused by what they are doing, and the huge damage and loss of life that could occur. There has been a rash of arson attacks recently, it is something I spotted myself and it is a very serious and worrying issue.”

Arson statistics were obtained by this newspaper following a Freedom of Information request.

PSNI figures state 1,585 arson offences were reported during 2011/12 year, including 416 attacks on residential property.

Another 541 crimes were recorded from April to July this year, 144 at a dwelling or home.

Last month an 88-year-old woman described her terror after thugs tried to burn her out of her home in Newcastle.

Earlier this year Betty and Deirdre McGirr perished after an arson attack at flats in Dungannon. The PSNI has so far not made arrests in connection with their deaths.

Indeed, police failed to bring charges in the vast majority of arson incidents. Of the 2,126 attacks between March 2011 and July this year, 88 people were charged — just one in every 24 cases. And only one in every 11 incidents of arson on residential property in the same period resulted in a formal charge.

Sinn Fein MLA Sean Lynch, of the Assembly’s Justice Committee, said the rate was not acceptable.

“The PSNI’s rate of bringing charges in one in 11 cases is not good enough,” he said.

“They need to review how they tackle this form of crime, because these attacks are a huge drain on fire service resources.”

The UUP’s Tom Elliott, who also sits on the committee, called the poor clear-up rate “very disturbing”.

“These figures are staggering – both the level of arson and the low number of people who are being arrested and charged,” he said.

The Belfast Telegraph has revealed how £90,000 a day was being spent by the Fire Service dealing with deliberate blazes.

Last month, 115 firefighters and 23 fire engines were called out to a massive fire at a clothes recycling plant near Newry. Police later said they were treating the fire as suspicious.

Assistant chief fire officer Dale Ashford appealed for help in addressing the growing threat .

“I am appealing to the public not to start deliberate fires as they are dangerous, waste valuable emergency services time and cause a huge amount of disruption and distress to victims,” he said.

“Deliberate fire setting of residential property possess a real risk to human life.”

He said initiatives were in place to address the issue, adding “everyone can play their part to help reduce deliberate fires”.

A PSNI spokesman said the force was “firmly committed” to driving crime levels down and bringing more before the courts.

“It should be noted that all incidents caused by fire are classed as arson, this can range from a very serious incident to youths setting fire to a bin,” he added.

“A significant proportion of reports of arson tend to leave few forensic opportunities. By the very nature of arson forensic opportunities can be destroyed, therefore securing evidence for prosecution is sometimes very difficult which inevitably leads to a low detection rate.”

He said the introduction of discretionary disposals, which do not count as detections, in 2011/12 is likely to have contributed to the fall in the detection rate.

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