Northern Ireland

Attwood calls for 'heritage crime' summit

A surge in the number of fires at listed buildings across Northern Ireland has led to calls for a heritage crime summit.

Environment Minister Alex Attwood revealed his plan as firefighters worked to establish the cause of a blaze at Herdman's Mill in Sion Mills.

"I have become concerned at evidence of a surge, a spike in damage being caused to built heritage," Mr Attwood said.

He said there had been 10 or 12 fires at historic buildings in recent months.

A heritage crime summit would be held in two weeks' time and would involve "all the relevant statutory and emergency agencies", he added.

"We need to get to grips with securing these buildings more effectively.

"Our built heritage is a key cog in our tourist industry in Northern Ireland."

Fire crews battled for hours to contain the blaze which broke out early on Saturday.

They were first alerted at about 0120 BST but the blaze later re-ignited and burned for several hours.

Image caption The fire at Herdman's Mill re-ignited on Saturday morning

On Sunday, a spokesman for the fire and rescue service said they were waiting for structural engineers to establish that it was safe to enter the building.

Only then, could they go in and find out how the fire started.

Herdman's Mill, which dates back to famine times in Ireland, featured in the BBC television series Restoration in 2003.

The mill went into receivership earlier this month. The move ended more than 170 years of ownership for the Herdman family.

The former owners of the historic mill said they feared it may have been completely destroyed by the fire.

Forty fire officers were called to deal with the blaze which was brought under control in the late afternoon.

It had been hoped to redevelop the 60-acre site which dominates the village.

Celia Ferguson, a member of the Herdman family and a trustee of the Sion Mills Buildings Preservation Trust, said she was "watching the most important industrial building in Ireland being destroyed by fire".

She said it was because of the "neglect of funders to do anything with the building".

She added: "It's a tragedy not just for Sion Mills, but for the whole northwest."

Strabane District Council chairman Brian McMahon said there was a "palpable sense of loss in the local community" at the devastation.

The Sinn Fein councillor, speaking from the scene, said: ""While the full extent of the damage will not become clear for a few days, this fire has undoubtedly delivered a setback in the efforts to redevelop the mill and the 60-acre site it stands on for the socio-economic benefit of the people of this area.

"However, this setback will hopefully reinforce everyone's determination to forge ahead."

Herdman's Mill, the last wet-spinning flax mill in Ireland, was opened during the potato famine.

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