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Why has the terrorism threat level not been raised here?

There are moves afoot that show increased security here and Taoiseach Varadkar needs to further strengthen our hand.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has promised to establish a ‘Cobra’-style committee for Ireland – similar to the UK’s Cobra Committee which deals with terror attacks and other disasters – within fifty days of taking office.

This is a very welcome and timely development given the current terror threat environment.

In the immediate aftermath of the London and Manchester attacks, there has been a great deal of public discussion in our media about the threat of a terror attack here and our ability to respond to a mass casualty incident.

In addition, there have been a number of very alarming headlines about the potential for mass casualty attacks in our capital city, at Shannon airport and throughout ‘rural Ireland’.  It is crucial now for the government to take a proactive lead in re-booting our response capability and educating the Irish people about the proper context within which to evaluate the risk posed by terrorism.

There are five terror threat levels as they apply to Ireland, ranging from ‘Low’ to ‘Critical’.  Currently, Ireland’s terror threat status lies at the second level, ‘Moderate’, meaning that an attack is possible but unlikely.

Until recently, our threat level was designated as ‘Low’. This was revised to ‘Moderate’ in the aftermath of the murder of Irish tourists in Tunisia in June 2015. In addition to the threat level being raised, there has also been a seismic shift at a national strategic level in identifying the nature of the primary existential threat to Irish citizens.

Despite these recent terror attacks in Britain, Germany, France and Sweden involving so called ‘lone wolf’ attackers employing ‘low-cost’ opportunistic means, the Minister for Justice and An Garda Siochana have not raised the threat level here.

Contrary to common sense

I am puzzled and concerned that these developments have had no impact on our official terror threat level.  It runs contrary to common sense.  In particular, the truck attack in Sweden – like Ireland, a neutral state with a low threat assessment –  was a wake-up call for all EU states to review their threat levels and emergency response preparedness.

A year ago, I would have said that an Islamist attack in Ireland was – in theory – possible, but highly unlikely.  In light of recent events, I would say that an attack here is, sadly, a distinct possibility.  We should therefore raise our threat level to that of ‘Substantial’ where an attack or incident is a ‘strong possibility’.

The government should also proactively communicate these matters in an intellectually honest and ethical manner in order to educate the public as to the precise nature of the current terror threat, so that our citizens are well informed and can put this frightening, but relatively low-risk scenario in its correct context.

Despite recent government spin to the effect that the threat remains unchanged, the Minister for Justice and Commissioner have announced dramatic increases in the numbers of armed gardai in specialist units to be deployed across the capital city and other regional centres.

A tacit acknowledgement

These developments – along with the searching of bags and handbags at sporting and entertainment venues – represent a tacit acknowledgement by government that there is a de-facto escalation in the threat posed to Irish citizens by Islamist extremists – and an ongoing and cyclical threat from organised crime.

Therefore, Leo Varadkar’s promise to establish a ‘Cobra-style’ committee along with a comprehensive review of our emergency response architecture is of critical importance to the public interest.  In terms of emergency response preparedness for terrorism – or indeed natural or other man-made disasters – Ireland is in a relatively good position to begin this process.

Despite the years of austerity which have hollowed out resilience, expertise and personnel in agencies like an Garda Siochana and the HSE, considerable work has been carried out by government departments over recent years to plan for major emergencies and configure coherent responses.

So what have we got in place already?

To begin with, we actually already have a Cobra-style committee.  Britain’s ‘Cobra’ Committee is simply an acronym for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A – the location where the British Prime Minister has face to face meetings with the relevant stakeholders – such as UK police and NHS leaders – in configuring responses to terror threats.

Ireland already has such a structure in place in the form of the National Security Committee – comprising the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, the Garda Commissioner and others – along with the National Steering Group on Major Emergencies, who are mandated to meet regularly with the Office for Emergency Planning and the National Emergency Coordination Centre in Agriculture House, next to Leinster House.

Taoiseach Varadkar will no doubt be relieved that such structures already exist and this should accelerate and enhance his planned overhaul of our emergency preparedness.

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Who is responsible in an emergency?

In terms of ‘who’ is responsible for emergency preparedness at the highest levels, the government document, ‘A Framework for Major Emergency Management’ and the recently revised ‘Annex A to Stretegic Emergency Planning Guidance – Lead, Principal and Other Support Roles’ the Department of an Taoiseach and the Government Press Secretary are identified as playing the lead role in communicating to the public the government’s clear responses and plans to deal with the mutating terror threat.

To date, former Taoiseach Kenny took a back seat on these issues and left the matter to the Minister for Justice with mixed results.  It will be essential for Taoiseach Varadkar show decisive leadership in this regard and drive proactive and clear government communication in the area of security, intelligence and policing.

There is much work to be done in restoring public trust in these areas and alleviating unnecessary anxiety on the part of an ill-informed public.  Irish citizens are the least well informed in Europe with regard to terror threats and the simple steps to be taken in the event of a terror attack.  Leo Varadkar and his team are in a unique position to change this.

What happens in a disaster or attack?

In terms of the ‘What’ with regard to emergency planning, the government documents list over 40 emergency scenarios ranging from natural disasters such as tsunamis, to earthquakes to cyber attacks and terrorist attacks.  In a ‘Who’s Who’ of departmental responsibility – the government documents identifiy the various ministers with lead responsibility for responding to and communicating in relation to the various threats and disasters outlined.

In the case of terrorist attacks on civil aviation, airports and transport hubs, the document identifies Minister Shane Ross as the lead Minister charged with educating the public and responding to changing threat levels.  In relation to cyber security and Information Technology disruptions, the document identifies Ministers Denis Naughten and the Justice Minister as primarily responsible for emergency response, communication and education in these areas.  A very large number of scenarios in the document identify Minister of State Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran as principal responder in his capacity as Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works and Flood Relief.

As Minister Varadkar continues to reshuffle his Cabinet in the coming days, in the conversations he initiates around these pressing matters in the coming weeks – the coalition have a very clear and explicit road map within these government documents in order to fully understand and act on their mandated roles in emergency response capability.

In the meantime, the Ministers for Justice and Health ought to immediately approve ‘boots on the ground’ exercises involving hundreds of gardai and HSE personnel, such as doctors, nurses and paramedics in order to guarantee the minimum response times necessary to respond meaningfully to a terror attack such as perpetrated in London and Manchester of late.

If this does not happen, Ireland will remain Europe’s weakest link in terms of security, defence and emergency response capability.

Exclusive: Armed Garda support units to monitor Ireland’s major cities from tonight>

About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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