Tuesday 23 January 2018

Not for the faint-hearted: A day in the life of Dublin's new armed guards

Armed police remain the exception in Ireland but in the past six months, An Garda ­Síochána's new Armed Support Unit has been backing up ­officers in Dublin and beyond. Photographer Mark Condren joins them on patrol

Armed guards prepare to assist gardai on a checkpoint. Photo: Mark Condren
Armed guards prepare to assist gardai on a checkpoint. Photo: Mark Condren
Sgt Tallon during a raid on an apartment. Photo: Mark Condren
A homeless woman is awoken during a raid by the Armed Response Unit of An Garda Siochana. Photo: Mark Condren
Gda Roche returns a skateboard to a group of youngsters. Photo: Mark Condren

'Sorry if I woke you."

"It's okay guard," comes the reply from the homeless woman in a stairwell. She rolls her sleeping bag around herself, puts her arm around her partner. She will try to return to sleep in the wake of a noisy and disturbing raid in a north inner-city flat by the Armed Support Unit of An Garda Síochána. It's just another night in Dublin.

This new highly trained mobile team of gardaí has been working in Dublin and its surrounding counties since December 2016. Based in Harcourt Street in the city centre, its specific brief is to tackle and confront serious violent incidents.

Launched by Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan to great fanfare, the development marked a step change in how the force now deal with serious crime and vicious criminals. When first introduced, the unit was seen as an important public relations effort to deal with a growing concern about the vast increase in serious crime on our streets.

Over the course of the last six months I have accompanied this unit on several missions. At times this was tough, but the exercise provided a fascinating insight into the type of challenges and problems facing gardaí.

The ASU are constantly called upon to respond to a variety of calls and incidents with speed and precision. So its members are impressively equipped with high-powered BMW and Audi cars and an arsenal of weapons. Their equipment includes hand guns, Tasers, semi-automatic ­machine guns, as well as ballistic vests and helmets.

For this unit, there is no typical work day. So, the job is not for the faint-hearted or inexperienced. ASU members Sergeant Paul Tallon and Garda Alan Roche are both from Dublin and have over 30 years' combined policing experience. Before joining the ASU they came through rigorous training. But both men are exceptionally experienced street cops who wear their knowledge and ability very lightly.

Each day as the shift begins, Sgt Tallon assesses the latest intelligence information and then briefs the unit about the various criminal and terrorist threats in Dublin. It's then time to check equipment and suit up. And we hit the streets.

Sgt Tallon during a raid on an apartment. Photo: Mark Condren
Sgt Tallon during a raid on an apartment. Photo: Mark Condren

Before long we are moving at high speed in a flash of blue lights and sirens to the north inner city responding to a firearms call.

Weapons drawn, arms outstretched and eyes always searching, Tallon and Roche quickly make their way up the stairwell and advance cautiously to a door. They gain entry and scan the flat for any possible threat or danger.

A homeless woman is awoken during a raid by the Armed Response Unit of An Garda Siochana. Photo: Mark Condren
A homeless woman is awoken during a raid by the Armed Response Unit of An Garda Siochana. Photo: Mark Condren

"Clear?"

"All clear!"

Once the area is deemed clear we are joined by uniformed gardaí who quickly brief the ASU of a possible location where firearms are believed to be. Only now the follow-up investigation can safely begin.

Care and compassion

It is on our descent through the building that we encounter the homeless couple, who are treated with kindness and compassion.

Over the course of the past six months I been struck repeatedly by the care and compassion the unit collectively show to the public. It is easy for us to forget, but the unit are not just dealing with criminals. In the course of their duties they must comfort children, calm and protect people in violent domestic situations, and in a more general sense deal with distressed people who have suffered at the hands of criminals.

Gda Roche returns a skateboard to a group of youngsters. Photo: Mark Condren
Gda Roche returns a skateboard to a group of youngsters. Photo: Mark Condren

It's after 11pm and the party is only starting in Temple Bar. In our car, the garda radio crackles to tell us that a man with two firearms is making his way through St Mary's Mansions, and urgent assistance is required. "Control to Romeo Sierra 34."

And we are off again.

@MarkCondren

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