Before Covid, the authority told gardaí that armed patrols ‘sent the wrong message’
It all started with a brawl. Or a video of a brawl, to be more specific, showing a number of men violently fighting in the arrivals area of Dublin Airport’s Terminal One on May 24.
The shocking scenes, lasting several minutes before being broken up, were “beyond embarrassing” for the Dublin Airport Authority ( DAA) and gardaí. The major security lapse also caused red faces among senior Government and garda figures, with Justice Minister Helen McEntee and Garda Commissioner Drew Harris forced to answer questions about it.
That the fight went on for so long before it was stopped had everyone asking the same question: Who is in charge of security at Dublin Airport?
“That fight should have been shut down in 30 seconds flat. And in any other airport in Europe it would have been. Fact. But here, it was able to go on for several minutes,” according to a security source based at the airport.
“It had everything. There were sub-fights, stamping, kicking, punching, with different men jumping in and out of it. It was a brawl — not what you’d expect at a national airport.
“How it unfolded was very embarrassing. The country was subjected to international ridicule. But more than that, it was a symptom of how badly this place is run. The brawl was just the first indicator that all was not well.”
There is background to how such a violent scene could unfold and remain unchecked. There have been “simmering issues” between the DAA and An Garda Síochána in terms of the patrolling of Dublin Airport by armed gardaí, assigned to the Armed Support Unit.
A matter arose — shortly before Covid — where senior DAA figures said that having visibly armed gardaí patrol the airport “sent the wrong message” to passengers, as well as causing potential friction with the Airport Police Service, which is funded and maintained by the DAA.
The security source said this issue has now been resolved, and a “memorandum of understanding” was drawn up to ensure smoother relations between gardaí and the DAA.
“Basically, there was an issue. The DAA didn’t like too many armed garda patrols. There was a conversation about it, and it was resolved. The armed garda presence remains,” added a separate security source.
“There are armed police in every airport in the world. There is a terrorism element to consider. These are matters of national security. The last thing we need is for Dublin Airport to be seen as a soft touch — a target.”
There is a garda station within Dublin Airport, opened to much fanfare just weeks ago by Ms McEntee. Where, then, were all these gardaí when the fight broke out?
“Look, there is no getting away from the slow response time. There was another disturbance in one of the airport pubs, which was linked to the main fight, so there were officers tied up with that,” explained a third security source.
“Airport police do have the powers to detain people involved in fights like this. But nothing happened really until gardaí finally got there.”
It was reported that one man was hospitalised after the row, but a source revealed that “he jumped out of the ambulance along the way”.
Another man has been brought before the courts charged in connection with the fracas, while the garda investigation continues.
But just as the furore over the brawl began to die down, other problems emerged. This time, violence wasn’t the problem. Instead it was the DAA’s inability to get passengers through to their flights in a timely fashion. These issues began to emerge in mid-May, but they came to a head the weekend before last.
So far, the DAA has blamed a number of factors for the chaotic airport scenes — a shortage of security personnel, training of new personnel, unexpected staff absences, and passengers turning up early.
Last week the DAA held its hands up and admitted it handled the events of last Sunday badly. More than 1,000 people missed their flights. The DAA says it will compensate those people for “out of pocket” expenses incurred as a result.
However, two security sources based at Dublin Airport say the “writing has been on the wall” for some time about the impending staffing crisis, but the DAA simply “ignored it”.
“About 1,000 staff took redundancy during Covid. These were mainly Security Search Unit staff, who get passengers through security, check hand luggage, and pat you down.
“The DAA cannot fill these jobs, because it’s an unattractive working package. The wages are low. There are a lot of 20-hours-a-week contracts on offer but staff are on call for up to 40 hours a week.
“The DAA made a big deal of saying garda vetting of security staff is delaying the hiring of people. That’s nonsense. Gardaí can — and we would — fast-track all applications for vetting. The issue is they just don’t have the applicants they need to fill these positions.”
When contacted, the DAA rejected claims that the working packages on offer to fill the much-needed jobs are not competitive.
“The hourly, entry-level pay for all new employees joining the Airport Security Unit is €14.14 (35pc above the minimum wage).”
This day last week, there were clearly not enough staff on duty to ensure all passengers could catch their flights. It is estimated that, compared to pre-Covid times, one-third of the Security Search Unit were on duty.
“What did the DAA think? That after Covid, everyone would continue to staycation in rip-off Ireland? They had time to prepare and recruit, but failed abysmally to do so,” added one garda source, who has been based at Dublin Airport for several years.
“The Security Search Unit have a very important role. It’s down to them to stop people with weapons and explosive devices getting on airplanes. These people are the last line of defence.”