Judge: Woman who set fire to bed was making ‘cry for help’

Scales of Justice
Scales of Justice

A Crown Court judge expressed concerns on Tuesday about how a vulnerable woman who spent two years on remand in Hydebank for an arson offence “has fallen through the gaps in our mental health system”.

Judge Neil Rafferty QC made the comments as he passed sentence on 62-year old Margaret McBride, who set fire to her bed in an act described by him as a “cry for help”.

McBride admitted piling items onto a bed in her Holywood home, then setting fire to them, which caused a blaze and resulted in over £40,000 of damage to the rented property at Kinnegar Drive.

The alarm was raised by neighbours and one day after the incident, on April 8 last year, McBride told police she started the fire because she wanted help. She also told officers she felt people in Holywood were looking down their noses at her, and there was ‘bad karma’ in the house.

Noting McBride’s mental health issues, Judge Rafferty said she has spent a year in remand - the equivalent of a two-year sentence - which exceeded the sentence he would be imposing for last April’s arson.

The judge also revealed that whilst on remand, McBride spent four of the 12 months in Knockbracken Healthcare Park.

Addressing McBride as she sat in the dock of Downpatrick Crown Court, sitting in Belfast, Judge Rafferty told her: “I want you out of prison today. Having been in prison for a while, we need to look at a way to move you from prison into suitable accommodation. I don’t want you just dumped out.”

The judge then asked McBride if she would agree to a two-year probation order. McBride, who appeared in the dock with a bag of clothes brought from prison, repeatedly asked where she was going, then said she would work with probation.

It then emerged that a place had been secured for McBride at Greerville Manor in south Belfast, which was described in court as a support care facility which specialises in residents with mental health difficulties.

A member of staff attended Tuesday’s hearing and confirmed she would bring McBride to Greerville.

Judge Rafferty told McBride the Probation Board had put together a package of support, which included living at approved accommodation, attending appointments with her GP and engaging in programmes recommended by her supervising officer.

He told the court: “Justice must be tinged with a degree of sympathy, caring and understanding of those who have fallen by the wayside through no fault of their own, but for mental health reasons.

“I am totally satisfied this lady has fallen through the gaps in our mental health system for a number of years.”

After telling McBride she wouldn’t be going back to prison but would instead be going to Greerville Manor, McBride addressed the judge and said: “Thank you your honour. Thank you very much sir.”