Gardaí can't legally access burglary attack victim Thomas Niland's phone data due to ruling in Graham Dwyer case

Tom Niland (73), who fell into a coma after gang inflicted severe head injuries on him at his home in rural Sligo

Tom Niland (73), who fell into a coma after gang inflicted severe head injuries on him at his home in rural Sligo

Eavan Murray

Gardai investigating the brutal attack on a bachelor farmer in rural Sligo fear he may have been targeted after withdrawing money from his credit union account.

Thomas ‘Tom’ Niland (73) suffered horrific head injuries during an aggravated burglary at his home in Skreen on January 18, and is now in a coma.

It is understood gardaí have traced Mr Niland’s movements in the days before the horrific assault and are probing whether he had been under surveillance after withdrawing money from the credit union in Tubbercurry.

It is understood Mr Niland was robbed of €700 during the attack by three balaclava-clad raiders, which has left him fighting for his life in hospital.

Also missing from his home is an iPhone that Mr Niland had recently received as a present.

Gardaí believe finding the phone could be critical to their investigation.

However, the recent European Court of Justice ruling on a case taken by convicted murderer Graham Dwyer means gardaí are legally prevented from accessing Mr Niland’s mobile phone data.

The data would have been able to show Mr Niland’s movements before the attack and if and where the raiders took the phone.

The recent court ruling decreed that existing European law does not allow the general retention of mobile phone data, which gardaí say has significantly affected their ability to solve crime.

Mr Niland’s cousin, Michael Walsh, described the issue as frustrating.

“This thing about the phone is so aggravating. The technology is there to trace a phone. So if they have suspects, they can see that they were in the vicinity of a crime. Or, at the same time, they could exclude others,” he said.

“The only people who are benefiting from this law are criminals. I understand the privacy aspect but only to a point. In certain circumstances like this there should be an exception.”

Sources said gardaí had traced Mr Niland’s movements from the credit union in Tubbercurry in the days before the attack.

It is understood he then visited the nearby Homeland agricultural supply store in Achonry before going to the local shop close to his home.

At 4pm on the day of the attack, he visited a Centra shop in nearby Dromore West.

Gardaí are combing through hundreds of hours of CCTV footage from across west Sligo in about to crack the case.

Investigators believe the criminals who targeted the elderly retired farmer were familiar with the local area.

They also believe the gang used a network of isolated rural roads traversing the Ox Mountains during their escape.

Investigators are confident the raiders travelled together at least as far as Tubbercurry.

Days following the incident, a man walking beside Easkey Lough on a mountain road that links Dromore West and Tubbercurry found Mr Niland’s wallet.

Detectives believe the wallet was thrown from the raiders’ vehicle as they fled.

The garda diving unit spent two days combing the lake.

During the vicious attack, in a bid to further incapacitate Mr Niland, one of his attackers tied his shoelaces together.

After the gang escaped, the bachelor managed to crawl to the roadway outside his house and was found by a passing bus driver and security guard.

The men brought Mr Niland to his neighbour’s house, the Calpin family, who have known Mr Niland for decades.

However, his injuries were so severe the Calpins did not recognise him initially.

James McLaughlin, a lifelong friend of Mr Niland, said the community was “devastated” by the attack.

“Last Sunday, three weeks ago, there was a vigil in the Skreen community centre for that poor girl Ashling Murphy, and who walked in in front of me? Only Tom.

“It’s horrendous to think the next vigil we had was for him.

“He was a lovely, kind, good-natured man.

“He worked on the one farm for 50 years, and he was so loyal and never missed a day.

“I don’t know how anyone could do this to him.

“If only they could have taken him in and tied him to a chair but to beat the life out of him is just unbelievable.

“It’s one of the most callous attacks here in the north-west in many years. He was the last man you would describe as vulnerable. He would have been well able to handle himself.

“But he was a very quiet man who just kept himself to himself and never got involved in any kind of trouble.

“If they bring these guys to justice, they can’t just get a slap on the wrist.

“I have known Tom for 55 years, and I don’t think I have ever heard a single person say a bad word about him.”

Local parish priest Fr Michael Gilroy urged those responsible for the attack to hand themselves in. “Everybody is just sick to the pit of their stomachs at what has happened to poor Tom,” he said.

“Tom is a consummate gentleman. He is such a kind, gentle and well-respected person here in our local community and a great neighbour and friend.

“Whoever did this needs to do the right thing and give themselves up to the gardaí and bring some justice to his situation.

“When you drive by his lovely house, you almost get a pain in your stomach thinking of what he suffered behind that door. It’s hard to get your head around all of it, to be honest.

“There have been a lot of burglaries around west Sligo in recent months. People need to feel safe in their own homes.”


Today's Headlines

More News

Download the Sunday World app

Now download the free app for all the latest Sunday World News, Crime, Irish Showbiz and Sport. Available on Apple and Android devices