New armed garda units tackle gangs nationwide
GARDAI are to introduce full-time armed squads nationwide to combat gangs involved in serious crime and terrorism.
The authorities have decided that permanent armed units should be based in each garda region.
But at the same time, it is intended to reduce the overall number of personnel who are licensed to carry firearms. An increase in gun violence has prompted the decision to turn the current regional support units into permanently armed squads.
The regional units were set up nationally to act as response squads to deal with incidents where those involved were either armed or presented some form of serious threat to themselves or the public.
Five units were created, one for each garda region outside of Dublin, where the duties are allocated to the long-established Emergency Response Unit (ERU), which is part of the Special Branch.
The regional units have access to high-powered weapons, such as the Heckler and Koch MP7 machine guns. However, up to now they have been armed only whenever an incident arises and the members spend the rest of their time on patrol without weapons.
But a rise in the number of incidents in which the units have to bring their firepower has forced a rethink.
Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan indicated earlier this year that he was examining the possibility of the units operating in "full-armed mode permanently". With overall firearms policy undergoing a review, he said he believed it was time to take a fresh look.
It is understood he has now decided to move toward permanently arming the regional units, which have undergone special training for their role as a quick-response force. The success of the regional units to date was also a factor.
It is expected that the move will take place in tandem with a reduction in the number of gardai who are authorised to carry guns. At the moment, about 3,500 have licences.
But this has been under review for some time in the context of an organisation that has been reduced in strength by cutbacks.
A senior officer told the Irish Independent last night: "We are talking here about uniformed gardai who are obliged on occasion to carry guns in plainclothes, and there is no need for more than a quarter of the force to hold firearm licences."
But he pointed out that the changes did not mean detectives would not have access to firearms.
A firearms strategy team was set up almost two years ago to examine a proposal to reduce the number of firearms cards in the force down to a thousand.
A strategy document identified an estimated savings of €1,031 each time a firearms card was rescinded. According to the Department of Justice, a saving of €2.7m could be generated.
But a final decision on the number of gardai to hold guns in the future has not yet been determined.
The internal debate about firepower in the force has taken place against a public row over the withdrawal of the Israeli-made Uzi sub-machine guns, which had been deployed by sections of the Garda since 1967.
Recently, a group of officers have been lobbying for its return.
But senior figures argue that the Uzi was not the most suitable weapon for an urban environment and its replacement, the Sig semi-automatic handgun, is a much more suitable weapon.
Opponents of the change say that gardai on escort duty felt more secure with an Uzi rather than having to draw a handgun from their hip holster.