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Garda Commissioner Drew Harris
Garda Commissioner Drew Harris
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

Explainer: Why has a minor accident involving the Garda Commissioner attracted controversy?

Details of the accident at Garda headquarters emerged over the weekend.
Apr 8th 2019, 5:45 PM 46,228 77

GARDAÍ ARE FACING calls to clarify details of a security operation involving Drew Harris after a vehicle escorting the Commissioner crashed outside Garda headquarters.

Details of the incident emerged over the weekend, when it was discovered that a P0lice Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) vehicle carrying Harris rammed a barrier at the Phoenix Park last month.

Although there were no major injuries, the episode has brought controversy upon the Commissioner, who faced questions about his links to the PSNI before his appointment.

The Minister for Justice has backed Harris, while gardaí and the PSNI have both said they are satisfied that normal procedures were followed during the escort.

But opposition TDs and security analysts have both called on the Commissioner to clarify what he was doing in a PSNI vehicle and asked whether his security detail was safe, appropriate, or even legal.

Here’s how the incident has played out so far, and what its implications are.

Border crossing

Over the weekend, reports emerged that a PSNI vehicle carrying Commissioner Drew Harris hit a barrier outside Garda HQ in Dublin last month.

Because the incident took place during a security operation, both gardaí and the PSNI have remained tight-lipped about events that led to the crash, so it’s difficult to say with complete certainty what happened.

However, there has been enough consistency in aspects of media reports that have allowed the public to piece together what took place.

On March 25, the Commissioner was travelling from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland in a PSNI vehicle.

Upon reaching the border, it is understood the vehicle carrying Harris was met by gardaí and travelled in convoy to Dublin without stopping – in other words, the Commissioner remained in the PSNI vehicle, with members of that force, the whole time.

When the convoy reached the Phoenix Park, it’s believed that the gatekeeper didn’t recognise the car Harris was travelling in because they weren’t informed that that the Commissioner was in it.

At some point, the gatekeeper is understood to have activated a spring-loaded security bollard to stop the car from entering Garda HQ, which caused damage to the front of the vehicle.

No major injuries were caused during the incident, and Harris attended a meeting of the Joint Policing Committee in Galway later that day.

Potential target

But despite the minor nature of the accident, the episode has led to concerns about how security is being provided to Harris and managed across the border in general.

Under normal operating procedures, it’s claimed that Harris would be transferred from a PSNI vehicle to a Garda vehicle at or near the border with the Republic of Ireland.

In this instance, it appears that once the PSNI vehicle reached the border, it continued into the Republic with Harris and members of PSNI on board.

Security analyst Tom Clonan tells TheJournal.ie that because of the change in jurisdiction, the border region is the most vulnerable area, a “weak link” for security.

“They should have been travelling by air, by helicopter,” he says.

“I don’t know why they weren’t. A few people have been killed over the years being moved from one vehicle to another.”

Clonan also describes how, as a former Deputy Chief Constable of the PSNI, Harris is a target for dissident republicans on both sides of the border.

As a high-ranking garda and former police officer, he says the Commissioner would have been travelling with the armed Close Protection Unit in Northern Ireland.

“There’s no way they would have driven anywhere in Northern Ireland without him on board,” he says.

“There were members of the PSNI Close Protection Unit carrying weapons in Ireland. And they are not allowed to do that under law.

It’s a violation of our sovereignty, and an unlawful and illegal act.

Legal implications

Sinn Féin justice spokesman Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire also expressed concerns about the operation, saying that if it went as described, it did so against normal procedures.

“[It] raises a series of questions about why standard procedure was abandoned, whether the gardaí on duty at the Phoenix Park were informed of this and if not, why not?” he said in a statement yesterday.

PSNI officers carry weapons at all times, so any vehicle carrying members of the force into Ireland would have also been carrying weapons as a result – which would be illegal under Irish law.

Gardaí and the PSNI have since claimed that security arrangements for the escort were in line with standard practice.

But Clonan says this explanation isn’t good enough, because Harris, as the Garda Commissioner, is the person with the ultimate responsibility for upholding Irish law.

“Something that is unlawful is not satisfactory,” he says.

Just because a policeman says it, doesn’t make it lawful. All Irish people have a right to know who has been carrying firearms in the jurisdiction.

“If he was in a vehicle where people were carrying weapons, he should put his hand up and say it happened and clarify why.”

Authorised weapons

To counter this, it has been suggested that other foreign security forces – such as the US Secret Service – have been allowed to use firearms in the Republic of Ireland in recent years.

However, such a move would require authorisation from the Minister for Justice, who can give permission to visiting officers to carry weapons on an exceptional basis.

In a statement this morning, Charlie Flanagan offered his support to both police forces while also appearing himself to distance himself from the incident.

The Minister acknowledged the reciprocal arrangements between gardaí and the PSNI for those travelling between both jurisdictions, saying they are “practical” and “risk-based”.

But he added: “Having said that, I understand that there has been a minor incident involving a car travelling at about walking pace.

“I am advised that the travel and security arrangements on this occasion were in line with standard practice.”

It would certainly appear that if the PSNI officers in the vehicle carrying Harris were carrying weapons, the Minister did not give any authorisation for them to do so.

Former employers

The incident also has implications for how cross-border security is being managed by gardaí and the PSNI.

Following reports over the weekend, those potentially targeting Harris are now aware of his preference for travelling by road across the border – something he does frequently.

Both forces now have to reconsider how the Commissioner travels to and from Northern Ireland to avoid any safety risks in future.

“It raises serious questions about his security and they need to figure out a way of keeping him safe,” Clonan says.

He adds that the Irish people also deserve an explanation for what happened, particularly what who was in the vehicle with Harris and how they returned to Northern Ireland.

“If you put gardaí in Northern Ireland, unionists would go bananas – and rightly so. It would undermine their territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

Clonan also suggests there are wider consequences if Harris doesn’t explain himself.

“One of the reasons Drew Harris was appointed as Commissioner was to restore confidence in gardaí,” he says.

“While he’s in that role, we must have clarity. We need to demand it of him.”

Harris spent much of the lead-up to his appointment playing down claims that he is too close to his former employers.

While he has managed to side-step such accusations during his first six months in the job, this controversy will have done him no favours.

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Stephen McDermott

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