Analysis: research shows that the expansion of the motorway network in the last two decades increased rates of burglary in rural Ireland

By Kerri Agnew, University of Sheffield 

If you are driving down the motorway and an Audi with blacked out windows speeds by, do you question why they are in such a rush, or do you put it down to pesky boy-racers? Although thrill-seeking burglars speeding from the scene is something we associate with a movie heist rather than idyllic Ireland, you might be surprised to know that it happens every week, if not everyday. 

Irish rural areas saw an increase in burglaries in the period following the millennium when the majority of the Irish motorway network was rolled out. The M4 and M6 provides a non-stop connection between Dublin and Galway, while the M1 connects Dublin to County Louth and on into Northern Ireland. With higher speed limits than its predecessor carriageway roads, travel times reduced dramatically as the motorway was rolled out, reducing traffic congestion and commuting to work time. 

On the sinister flip side, the expansion of the motorway brought attractive rural targets closer to criminals. Even in the few days after the Gort to Tuam motorway in Galway opened in 2017, a significant spike in burglaries was reported. High quality roads like motorways are an artery to valuable stolen goods and a reliable escape route. It has been reported that the gardai won’t chase a burglary gang going faster than 200km per hour.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's CountryWide. ICMSA president John Comer discusses the problem with rural crime in 2017

According to the CSO’s official statistics, close to half a million burglaries were recorded in Ireland between January 2003 and September 2019. As Dublin is the economic and wealth centre of Ireland, it is no surprise that the majority of burglaries (41%) happened in the Dublin region. Outside of Dublin, the counties with the highest burglary rates over the period are all directly accessible using the motorway network, with a further 30% of burglaries in the period happening across Cork, Kildare, Limerick, Galway, Louth and Meath. In comparison, those counties isolated from the motorway network saw the lowest occurrence of burglary, for example, Kerry, Sligo, Leitrim and Mayo, have a combined share of only 4% of burglaries over the same period. 

Comparing recorded burglary data in Ireland's 563 policing Sub Districts with geographical data on the expansion of the motorway network between 2003 to 2015, the findings confirm that the motorway network transported burglary to neighbourhoods outside of Dublin and near motorways. For scale, Sub Districts are small geographical areas (for example, Howth in north county Dublin is a Sub District). The results show that on average a Sub District experiences a 10% rise in the burglary rate in the year that a motorway is built nearby. The rise in burglary is likely to be temporary because travelling burglary gangs prefer to move their crimes around in order to evade police detection.  

While a majority of burglars prefer to commit crimes close to where they live because they have knowledge of the area, there is a growing trend of burglars committing crimes far away from their homes. Today’s burglars don't have to try hard to be technologically savvy; Sat Navs come pre-installed in cars, military grade binoculars and drones are available online and WhatsApp messages can be encrypted. It has never been easier for a burglar to find what they are looking for and to get away with it. 

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From RTÉ One's Prime Time, dealing with the issue of rural burglaries

It is understood that there are up to nine highly organised burglary gangs operating across Ireland. Organised burglaries, and organised property crimes more generally, are not specific to Ireland and are part of a wider trend throughout the European Union. In recent years, these organised property criminals have become a focus of the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol), and were classified as priority crime areas under the EU policy cycles of 2014-17 and 2018-21.

Estimates suggest that one burglary is committed every 1.5 minutes in the European Union, with some member states registering 1,000 burglaries per day. In 2014, law enforcement authorities disrupted an international network of 240 burglars in a major operation. The gang strategically divided themselves into three-member mini gangs and were dispatched to cities located near motorway exits.

A difficulty with policing mobile criminals is that increased policing in one neighbourhood doesn’t necessarily deter the criminal from committing a crime. Sometimes reducing the problem in one area moves the problem elsewhere. For example, burglars can relocate their crime to areas with less police presence, or diversify into other crimes to make money.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, John Cooke reports on rural crime in 2017

An Garda Síochána has successfully expanded its efforts to crackdown on motorway burglaries in recent years. The new measures include high-visibility patrols, increased checkpoints, increased surveillance and community awareness campaigns. There have been more than 9,000 arrests and 11,000 charges made since the Garda began to tackle rural burglaries. 

However, with each new segment of motorway built, the burglars' playground grows, as new neighbourhoods open up to the criminals. With proposals for a Dublin to Derry motorway, a Scotland to Northern Ireland bridge and an all-island motorway network being floated recently, these policing measures to crack down on motorway burglaries shouldn’t be scaled back anytime soon.

Dr Kerri Agnew is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Economics at the University of Sheffield 


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ