Published Monday, 15 August 2011
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The Environment Minister led a Heritage Crime Summit meeting on Monday following concerns many of the region's most valued properties are being targeted by criminals.
Alex Attwood said he would be seeking support from the Irish government and An Garda Siochana in attempts to put an end to attacks on important sites.
The meeting was held in Hillsborough Court House in Co Down and heard from Chief Inspector Mark Harrison, policing and crime advisor to English Heritage.
"A neglected building sends out big signals to the criminal sector that no one cares about this, no one is going to do anything if I take things from it," he said.
"We've got to change that message and what we were hearing today was ideas around how you could bring buildings back into use and decrease the signs of neglect.
"That will show that people do care and crime should go down."
Mr Attwood later said: "There may be issues on the island of Ireland about organised crime involvement.
"There is good evidence in Britain
"We need to be very aware that there could be an interest from organised crime [in Northern Ireland]."
The minister said gangs could be stealing from buildings and causing extensive damage in the process.
"It's hard to know whether it's just anti-social activity or whether there's something more," he said.
"Or whether organised crime could be involved. Whatever the circumstances we need to do more to protect buildings at risk, by securing them."
The Minister said the Heritage Crime Summit will meet again in 55 days to review the measures that will be taken between now and then and outline the measures to be taken forward over the coming months.
One of the venues recently attacked however was the historic Herdman's Mill in Sion Mills, where a fire caused extensive damage last month.
The Co Tyrone mill dates back to the famine and is one of the most important industrial buildings in Ireland.
Dr Anthony McCann of the Sion Mills Building Preservation Trust said the meeting provided "real opportunity".
"Hopefully we can move forward towards a new positive agenda with the transformation of neglected heritage sites."
Mr Attwood said that in the wake of the conference, he would be immediately drawing up plans to develop better systems for protecting built heritage.
But he said one problem was the collating of figures on such crimes.
"The PSNI don't record heritage crime figures," said Mr Attwood.
"We don't know what the scale of the built heritage crime is because it is not recorded as built heritage crime."
Kenny McHugh, PSNI Crime Prevention Design Advisor, said police are doing as much as they can.
"We depend on the support of our local communities for the protection of our heritage. Anyone seeing anything suspicious please report it.
"I encourage owners to contact our crime prevention officers for advice on securing their buildings."
The minister has also been in touch with the Attorney General with a view to examining the sentences in place for those guilty of causing damage to historic buildings.