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Tom Clonan: Compared with other EU countries, Ireland has a high rate of gun violence - so why is our government so complacent?

Gardai responding to armed incidents are usually unarmed and untrained in firearms.

Tom Clonan

THIS WEEK SAW the Garda Representative Association call for a dramatic expansion of the number of Armed Support Units throughout the country. 

Gardaí on the ground are becoming increasingly concerned about the growth of violent gun crime in the Republic. 

According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO), ‘Weapons and Explosives’ offences rose by more than 10% in Ireland in just one year between 2017 and 2018 – to a total of 2,248 incidents. 

While there are major problems with the recording of our crime statistics, it is evident that we have a gun-murder rate six times worse than Britain. 

The statistics

Serious crime has been systematically under-reported in the Republic over the last decade. 

The CSO recorded a total of 77 homicides in Ireland for 2018 but worryingly it also said that the quality of the statistics given to them by the Department of Justice ‘do not meet the standard required of official statistics published by the CSO’. 

The CSO says that the number of homicides reported between 2003 and 2016 was underestimated by approximately 18% meaning that some 234 deaths were not recorded during that period.

Despite these omissions, we can still see some startling trends in murder in Ireland. 

In the 10 years between 2005 and 2015, 201 Irish citizens were killed by firearms. 

During the same 10-year period, in Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) a total of 454 citizens were killed by a firearm. 

When you factor in that we have a population of 4.6 million people, while the population of Britain is 65 million, it is apparent that our gun-murder rate is six times greater than theirs. 

Indeed when you look at gun-murder rates across the EU Ireland has one of the highest rates out of all 27 member states. 

We have a major problem with gun violence on this island.

Recent high-profile shootings

This problem has been dramatically demonstrated in two high profile shooting incidents on this island in the last number of weeks. 

On 18 April, journalist Lyra Mc Kee was shot dead in Derry by a member of a dissident republican group styling itself the ‘IRA’ or ‘New IRA’. 

The perpetrator fired a 9mm automatic handgun, at point blank on rapid fire – at PSNI personnel. Lyra was tragically struck in the head and killed in this reckless act.

Exactly one week later, on 25 April, in Drogheda, a gunman fired a 9mm automatic handgun – also at point blank and rapid fire – at an innocent workman and passers-by in the Hardmans Gardens estate. 

The modus operandi of both shootings was identical. 

In both cases, handguns similar to Glock Automatic Pistols, which are readily available to both dissident paramilitaries and organised crime gangs, were discharged in a rapid-fire frenzy with the intention to kill and without regard for the safety of ordinary members of the public. 

In the case of the Drogheda shooting, as is clearly visible from the video of the incident, the shooter narrowly misses a child walking past the house in question.

Calls for back-up

It is within this context that the Garda Representative Association (GRA) has been calling for an increase in the number of Armed Support Units (ASUs) throughout the country. 

Their call also comes in the midst of a spate of high profile ATM thefts involving gangs both north and south of the border. 

These ATM thefts have become international news and bring the state of law and order on the whole island into international disrepute. 

Members of An Garda Síochána also believe that one of the gangs involved in the ATM thefts were also involved in the murder of Detective Garda Adrian Donoghue in January 2016. That murder was also with a firearm. 

The GRA has asked for 24-hour ASU back-up for each of the 31 Garda Divisions. 

This highlights that at present ASUs are only dedicated on a regional basis in the six nationwide regions and the Dublin Metropolitan Region. 

Sources within the gardaí state that in some regions, the ASU is expected to cover areas that extend for hundreds of kilometres from Malin Head in Donegal to urban centres such as Sligo town. 

In other Garda Regions, there is no 24/7 cover by ASU due to rostering issues and personnel shortages. 

As a consequence, most policemen and women, responding to armed incidents involving firearms, are ordinary rank and file gardaí. 

They are unarmed and untrained in firearms and the tactical responses required in such situations. As a back-up, in many cases, local detective units, armed with handguns are expected to deal with organised crime gang members armed with high calibre automatic rifles and machine pistols. 

This is an unacceptable situation for gardaí, as well as for ordinary members of the public.

Decades behind other forces

Compounding these issues of training and equipment are serious shortfalls in the fleet available to An Garda Síochána with most Garda Divisions experiencing chronic shortages in transport.

In addition, most gardaí here lack the basic in-car and handheld IT equipment that are standard issue in other European Union police forces. 

Most readers will be familiar with TV staples such as Motorway Cops or Traffic Cop, where British police are routinely equipped with IT equipment that allows them to determine, at the side of the road, the complete history of a vehicle and its occupants, including criminal record and outstanding warrants for arrest. 

An Garda Síochána have no such infrastructure and are required to do 21st-century policing with wooden truncheons and often with their own mobile phones.

It was with such a lack of proper IT back-up (including warnings on the potential danger from firearms) that Garda Tony Golden was murdered by a gunman while responding to a routine domestic violence incident in 2015. 

All of the Garda Representative organisations, the GRA and AGSI, as well as recent Garda Commissioners, have stated repeatedly that An Garda Siochána is ‘decades’ behind other police forces in terms of numbers, equipment, training and resources. 

In 2016, Garda Commissioner Noreen O’Sullivan admitted on the record that our police force was ’20 years’ behind in IT and other key skill sets. 

This week, members of the GRA used unprecedented language to describe the Minister for Justice as ‘negligent’ with regard to proper policing supports in Ireland. 

Other words, such as ‘despicable’ were used by front line gardaí to describe plans by newly appointed Commissioner Drew Harris to cut Garda recruitment – at a time of increasing gang violence and paramilitary activity on the island.

‘Mind-boggling’ was also a term used by delegates to describe the mismatch between the reality of a chronic, crisis point, lack of resources on the ground – and grandiose claims by the Minister and senior civil servants that the gardaí enjoy ‘unprecedented’ support.

I do not believe that Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan is ‘negligent’ about gun crime in Ireland but I do believe that he and his cabinet have become complacent about crime and security on the island. 

A perfect storm

Now in the context of Brexit, we are facing a perfect storm in relation to the ramping up of paramilitary and terrorist activity on the island along with the continued proliferation of the violence and activities associated with drug gangs. 

Many organised crime gangs are getting ‘Brexit Ready’ with ATM thefts and the extension of their lucrative drug trade into regional hubs – such as Drogheda and other urban centres nationwide. 

Collaboration between such gangs and paramilitaries is well established, particularly as it applies to the supply of firearms into this jurisdiction. 

In this manner, and in many others, including extortion, drug dealing and racketeering in illegal fuel and cigarettes – the shootings in Drogheda and Derry are connected. 

The inter-connectedness between so-called ‘organised crime gangs’  and terrorists on this island are not to be underestimated. Their activities will expand rapidly with the advent of Brexit – hard border or otherwise. 

Through their complacency, our government has sleepwalked into a situation where we have one of the worst rates of homicide by firearm in Western Europe. 

The Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice can begin to address this by investing in our hollowed out police service and in our Defence Forces, which is also in crisis. 

This is surely the most important way in which we can get Brexit-ready – it is literally a matter of life or death. 

Dr Tom Clonan is a security analyst and former captain in the Irish Defence Forces.

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