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'Gardaí being left in the dark about terror threats to Ireland. That's worrying'

In Ireland, there is no terrorism alert system or threat level assessment that we know of. This is a grave concern, writes Tom Clonan.

Tom Clonan

THE ASSOCIATION OF Garda Sergeants and Inspectors represents the ‘boots on the ground’ leadership of Ireland’s police force. These are garda officers with daily front-line experience of Ireland’s changing crime and security environment.

At their annual conference this week they confirmed that ordinary gardaí on the beat have no access to intelligence or updates on the overall terrorist threat. The AGSI also confirmed that gardaí do not have the ‘knowledge, capability or training’ necessary to deal with domestic or international terrorism.

This is a grave disclosure.

Especially in the wake of the recent Paris and Brussels attacks carried out by so-called Islamic State sympathisers. Most EU member states have an ‘alert system’ for terrorism, or a terrorism ‘threat level assessment’ which is communicated to both security services and the general public.

Levels of threat 

In Britain, there are five levels of threat. The scale of threat begins at ‘Low’. For UK citizens, the highest level of threat is ‘Critical’ – when a terrorist attack is deemed ‘imminent’.

In the aftermath of the Paris and Brussels attacks, Britain deems the risk of terror attack at ‘Severe’, or ‘highly likely’. This information is placed in the public domain in information campaigns and easily accessible websites, hosted by agencies such as MI5 and Metropolitan Constabularies.

In Ireland, there is no such alert system or threat level assessment that we know of.

Information on Ireland’s threat level is difficult to obtain. Some sources suggest that Ireland’s threat level was raised from ‘Low’ – whatever that means – to ‘Moderate’ in the aftermath of the Paris attacks in November.

Dublin crime gang raids Source: Niall Carson

This information is not publicly available and the terms – in common usage in other jurisdictions – are not generally understood by the Irish public.

After the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris last January, the French authorities fundamentally reviewed their terror alert systems. The architecture of the French ‘Vigipirate’ terrorism and threat assessment mechanisms were overhauled to dramatically enhance public communication and police response times to terrorist attacks. The effects were dramatic.

In the Charlie Hebdo attacks, ordinary police responders were murdered in cold blood by armed Islamists. Officer Ahmed Merabet was executed as he lay on the ground outside the magazine’s offices.

Police Officer Clarissa Jean-Phillpe was shot and killed at point blank range by another Islamist while attending a traffic incident in Montrouge, downtown Paris. Both slain officers were armed and equipped with state of the art Sig Sauer Pro SP 2022 automatic pistols.

Despite a massive manhunt involving thousands of armed Gendarmes and members of Police Nationale, it took two days to finally end the terrorist operation in a barricade incident and shoot-out at Dammartin-en-Goele on the outskirts of Paris.

The French authorities conducted a detailed after-action analysis of the Hebdo attacks and made strenuous efforts to improve public communication, information and vigilance. They also reinforced their ability to carry out surveillance and to proactively communicate intelligence to local police units on routine patrols.

Preventing terrorist attacks 

In the current security environment, it is impossible to prevent terrorist attacks – particularly when marauding attackers mount hybrid shooting and suicide bomb assaults with no regard for preventative security measures. Response time is now the number one priority for security agencies around the world.

If an attack cannot be prevented, then it must be disrupted and closed down as soon as possible. Public information, vigilance and a rapid, effective, response is now the name of the game in the international security community.

In the Paris attacks, a vigilant security guard prevented terrorist Bilal Hadfi from entering the Stade de France, thus saving dozens of lives. At the Bataclan Theatre, an ordinary French policeman who happened to be on patrol in the area, entered the building within 15 minutes of the commencement of the attack.

File Photo The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors is to hold a special conference in June to discuss possible industrial action if the government does not commit to pay restoration. AGSI General Secretary John Jacob called on delegates at the a Source: RollingNews.ie

He saw one of the attackers standing on the stage wielding a Kalashnikov assault rifle. Using his standard Sig Sauer automatic pistol, he shot him in the torso – thus detonating his suicide vest. The other gunmen fled upstairs. The intervention of an ordinary beat cop – trained to use a firearm – ended the killing spree in the Bataclan.

According to the front line operational leadership of our police force, there is no such training or equipment available to Irish Gardai. The AGSI have stated that while ordinary Gardai receive updates on severe weather, they do not receive any updates on the current terror threat assessment.

In Ireland, our ordinary, unarmed gardaí are not even equipped with ballistic vests whilst on patrol. In the event of a terror attack which our threat assessment deems ‘possible’, ordinary garda beat cops or ‘mules’ would be the first responders.

Deficiency in training not gardaí’s fault 

Unlike their French or Belgian counterparts however, they are neither trained or equipped to deal with such an incident. They would be expected to act as human shields for members of the public wearing only high-viz vests for protection. This deficiency in training, equipment and response time was highlighted in the recent Regency Hotel shooting. In that incident and in subsequent killings in the city, automatic weapons – including Kalashnikov assault rifles – have been used to carry out public executions with virtual impunity on the streets of Dublin.

These grave deficiencies were highlighted by a clearly frustrated and demoralised AGSI this week.

They were also reported around the world by the BBC and other international media organisations. It is official. Ireland has become Europe’s weakest link in terms of security, intelligence and resilience in the event of a manmade or natural mass casualty incident. This is not a failure on the part of front line gardaí. This is a failure of government and political leadership.

The Minister for Justice did not attend this week’s AGSI conference. Neither does she routinely attend meetings of Ireland’s National Security Committee. Whoever succeeds her as Minister for Justice needs to repair our police service.

The next government needs to restore public trust in the administration of justice which has been eroded by a relentless succession of scandals, resignations and inconclusive enquiries.

At the very minimum, the minister needs to discharge her duty of care to hard pressed gardaí and members of the Irish public. Ireland needs, and deserves a properly resourced and remunerated police service.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. He is also an Independent candidate for Senate-TCD Panel. You can follow him on Twitter here.    

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