Belfast Telegraph

Why we must save our history from arsonists

Twelve listed or historical buildings have been destroyed or damaged in fires since April. Deborah McAleese reports on new efforts to end the attacks

It was the last wet-spinning flax mill in Ireland, dating back to the Famine era, but last month 176 years of history was almost wiped out in a suspected arson attack.

The historic Herdman’s Mill in Sion Mills is one of 12 listed or important historical buildings damaged or destroyed in fires since April.

Although this is a small percentage of the 8,500 heritage properties in Northern Ireland, Environment Minister Alex Attwood said there has been a worrying spike in incidents of heritage crime.

“In the previous years we maybe had one to three properties damaged by fire, this year it is about a dozen, so we are looking at a 400% to 500% increase. In the scale of built heritage it is a small number, but you need to anticipate and you can’t presume it will remain that small,” said Mr Attwood, who yesterday held a special summit on heritage crime.

This type of crime is not just arson attacks or vandalism on historic buildings, it also includes architectural theft, removal of objects and damage to monuments.

It is difficult to determine the true extent of the problem in Northern Ireland as the PSNI does not gather statistics on heritage crime.

PSNI crime prevention design adviser Kenny McHugh told the summit that the force needs a digital mapping system to identify where the province’s heritage sites are and to develop an all-Ireland strategy to tackle the problem.

Around 100 people took part in yesterday’s summit at Hillsborough Courthouse, which also looked at how similar problems are being dealt with by English Heritage.

In England the authorities have drawn up a co-ordinated plan to deal with heritage crime after a dramatic increase in incidents, which included 200-year-old flagstones being torn up to make a rockery, a Civil War battlefield looted by treasure hunters, churches stripped and fountains and fireplaces stolen from historic houses.

These crimes are beginning to be taken seriously within the English courts, with one judge jailing a man for four months for daubing graffiti on historic landmarks in York telling him: “Given the worldwide significance of the historic sites you damaged with graffiti, I am satisfied the offences were so serious only a custodial sentence is appropriate.” In terms of sentences available here, Mr Attwood said that he has been in contact with the Lord Chief Justice to discuss the problem of heritage crime.

Mr Attwood added: “It is important that we protect and preserve as much of our built heritage as possible and that is why I wanted to get the key players under one roof for this summit to discuss the problem and see what more we can do to protect our built heritage.”

Background

Since April this year 12 listed or important historical buildings have been damaged or destroyed in suspected arson attacks. Environment Minister Alex Attwood yesterday held a heritage crime summit to gather expert advice on protecting special sites. Mr Attwood said: “Damage to built heritage is damage to our economy. It is part of our bedrock that attracts people to Northern Ireland.”

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