Housing Minister under fire for 'conspiracy theory' on anti-social behaviour

Housing Minister under fire for 'conspiracy theory' on anti-social behaviour

Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O'Brien 

The Minister for Housing has been criticised for furthering a racist conspiracy theory linking a housefire in Balbriggan to anti-social behaviour.

The "well-developed house fire" broke out in the Chapel Grove area on August 9, and saw the house involved completely decimated, and it's next-door neighbour evacuated due to electrical issues and fire damage.

Darragh O'Brien, who is one of the TDs for the area posted on social media at the time that the fire: "Follows very serious anti-social & criminal behaviour earlier in the town. My information is that they may be related." 

Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell appeared on the Niall Boylan radio show on August 12, and appeared to link the fire to anti-social behaviour.

"I have watched those videos they are just that, they're shocking and appalling the behaviour in them, and what has apparently led to which was a fire that gutted a family home and badly damaged the neighbours," Mr Farrell said.

"There's lots of talk, nothing concrete has been put to me about the origins of the fire, but you watch the video and it's very clear to me and I'm no expert but it looks like there was an accelerant used."

One day after the fire, Mr O'Brien appeared on 98FM and said he was "not linking" the incidents. 

However, the Minister had still not deleted his social media post where he had linked the two by Wednesday afternoon.

Residents in the community say linking the two separate incidents was "irresponsible" from someone in government, and furthered a "far-right conspiracy theory".

The cause of the fire is yet to be confirmed officially, however, Gardai told the Examiner that initial inspections have been completed.

The fire has since been portrayed on social media by far-right accounts as a deliberate arson attack as a result of a racially motivated gang and drug violence.

As a result of the fire and subsequent rumours, the family who have owned the house for a number of years, are "effectively in hiding", Dr Lucy Michael from Fingal Communities Against Racism said.

"The mother is a frontline worker, they are known well and a lovely family, it's heartbreaking for them, rumours started that the family were involved in drug dealing, it's been a seriously traumatic situation.

"Their children are of primary and secondary school age.

"The family have told me it was an electrical fire which accelerated when it hit their oil tank and exploded, they were at home at the time, and narrowly escaped with their lives."

Tweet by Darragh O'Brien
Tweet by Darragh O'Brien

Fingal Communities Against Racism says individuals and groups linked with the far-right have used the opportunity to exploit people's fears of crime and anti-social behaviour, to stir up hatred and division and turn neighbours against each other.

"The misinformation that this was linked to anti-social behaviour was circulated by fake Facebook accounts set up last year during the last by-election campaign and reactivated to be used now," Dr Michael said.

"TDs usually wait for a Gardai official line but they all went ahead and linked them in the first place.

"It's a very easy mistake to make given we haven't had a long history of far-right in this country, public reps are only learning now that repeating this information is irresponsible. 

"Before, social media had been a reasonably good way to find out what's going on, but this level of misinformation is from a far-right playbook shared internationally, and we've never seen this used in Ireland before.

"The first video the far-right cut together was of a fight they used last year at the time of the election, they cut this together with footage of the fire, and it did the rounds on Whatsapp hours after the fire, linking the two.

"Another video of young people near the fire circulated shortly after, and the family have told me that those young people assisted them getting out of the house, but that wasn't the context in which the video was shared."

Balbriggan is the youngest town in Ireland and has a diverse community.

Representatives for the area say it has been blighted by under-development and under-employment for years, and amenities are struggling to keep pace with the rate of housing development. 

There has been a spate of fights between teenagers over the summer, which Gardai have been made aware of.

The National Party and former journalist Gemma O'Doherty canvassed the area during last year's by-election when Ms O'Doherty attempted to get elected in the Fingal constituency, and the party have since posted on social media about the "dangers" of migration when discussing the current situation in Balbriggan.

Darragh O'Brien has been contacted for comment.

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