MORE than 120 uniformed gardai in specialist units countrywide will be permanently armed from today as part of a crackdown on criminal gangs and dissident terrorists.
This is the first time that uniformed gardai have been given permission to carry guns full-time since the foundation of the force almost a century ago.
The move has been sanctioned after a review of the operation of the five regional support units (RSUs) since their introduction in 2008.
Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan has ordered that all the regional response units will be permanently armed after a rise in the number of incidents requiring garda firepower.
The five regional units were set up nationally to act as response squads to deal with certain incidents, where those involved were either armed or presented some form of serious threat to themselves or the public.
But the units, one for each garda region outside Dublin, were previously allowed to carry guns only on a part-time basis.
Their members, who are all members of the uniformed branch of the force, have up to now been patrol- ling unarmed with their weap- ons locked into the boots of their cars.
But they were converted into an armed unit if called on to respond to an incident where there was a threat to life or the possibility of an armed confrontation.
Now the garda authorities have decided that units based in each garda region should be permanently armed.
The Emergency Response Unit (ERU), which is part of the Special Branch, will continue to cover the capital and will also be available to focus on ‘high-end’ crime, targeting dissident terrorist groups and organised crime gangs.
But at the same time, it is intended to reduce the overall number of personnel who are licensed to carry firearms.
A senior garda officer told the Irish Independent last night: “The decision (to permanently arm these units) makes sense.
“The original decision was a compromise to allow the introduction of the units outside the capital and it was always intended that it should be reviewed after they had been in operation for some time”.
An increase in gun violence has partly prompted the decision to turn the units into permanently armed squads.
Along the Border the RSU in the northern region has been highly active in the past year in the fight against terrorism, as well as providing armed back-up for joint garda and customs operations against fuel launderers and cigarette smugglers, many of whom have links with dissident republican outfits.
Members of the five RSUs have undergone extra training ahead of today's move. They also include former members of the ERU, who were transferred to the regions on promotion.
The regional units are armed with weaponry including high-powered Heckler and Koch MP7 machine guns. They are comprised of 24 officers in each of the five regions, while the ERU, which is a plainclothes armed unit, has significantly more manpower.
And the move will placate some officers who were unhappy at a decision to withdraw the powerful Israeli-made Uzi sub-machine gun from use within the force.
The permanent units are being welcomed by senior officers, coming just three weeks before the first anniversary of the murder of Detective Garda Adrian Donohoe.
The 41-year-old was shot dead by a gang robbing a credit union at Lordship, outside Dundalk, Co Louth, on January 23 last year.
The suspects in the murder operate on both sides of the Louth/Armagh border and have links to dissidents.
“Making the arming of the regional response units permanent is a good move,” said one senior garda.
“It will make responses to major incidents easier and adds a resource to unarmed units operating along the Border where crime gangs and dissidents are creating a major problem for the security forces on both sides of the Border.”
The regional response units regularly provide support when gardai raid suspected fuel-laundering plants, often in counties near the Border.
Meanwhile, the gardai |and PSNI have stepped up |their surveillance on terrorist |suspects in the past couple of weeks, because of the increased activity by the dissidents.
Gardai scored several recent successes in the war on terror, including major seizures of arms and explosives. During the search for a dissident republican on the Derry/Donegal border in September, members of the unit were airlifted by Army Corps helicopter to help in the search.
In the border region, there are four groups of two RSU officers on duty at any one time – two based in Ballyshannon, |Co Donegal and two based in Dundalk, Co Louth.
The Donegal units were successfully deployed on a permanent basis during the G8 summit in Co Fermanagh last summer. They aim to operate on a 20-minute response time.
However, the decision to arm the five permanent units is also expected to lead to a reduction in the overall number of personnel who are licensed to carry firearms.
At the moment, about 3,500 have licences but garda authorities wish to see this reduced.
By Greg Harkin and Tom Brady