Unarmed gardaí a utopian luxury we can no longer afford
The killing of Garda Tony Golden while responding to a domestic incident brings into sharp focus the dangers faced by our gardaí on a daily basis.
The fact that this murder was committed apparently by a person on bail suspected of terrorist offences is a clear illustration of the disregard for the rule of law by some people and the urgent requirement that our bail laws are in need of reform. The fact that Adrian Crevan Mackin had access to and was in possession of an illegal firearm, despite being on bail, speaks for itself.
The killing by gunfire of a second garda in less than three years in this region reinforces the views of respected journalist Jim Cusack, of this newspaper, that a "corridor of lawlessness" exists along the border involving former terrorists both republican and loyalist. In the context of the high incidence of gun crime, perhaps consideration should be given by the authorities to revising policing methods including arming the gardaí, particularly in some regions.
The decision by the Garda authorities last year to permanently arm a number of uniform gardaí is in my view a welcome innovation and will no doubt give reassurance to the public in general and rural communities in particular. But it's hardly revolutionary, as some commentators would have us believe, for it represents 0.8pc of the garda force being permanently armed. It amounts to 24 permanently armed gardaí per region. Based on a 24/7 service, this represents a mere five armed gardaí will be on duty at a particular time. Clearly, this falls well short of an effective armed response to say the least and I suspect the balaclava men will not be quaking in their boots or taking off to the Costas at this development.
May I suggest that the number of armed gardaí be increased to at least 50 per region and a cohesive unit formed in each region with the capability of responding to and carrying out high-risk operations involving armed robberies, hostage taking, searches and surveillance? These units should be trained to an extremely high standard, adequately and fully equipped, and should operate full-time with tight, professional managerial control.
The selection procedure should be rigorous and spearheaded by senior personnel from the national Emergency Response Unit (ERU) and should involve various stages and competencies. A defined period of service in these units is a vital element and no person should be allowed to serve in such a unit until he/she meets the qualifying standard at the various assessment stages.
The key to the operational effectiveness of such units is training. The training should reflect real-life situations the units are likely to encounter and should include simulated exercises, continuous firearms training, tactical awareness training, knowledge of the legal system, map reading, unarmed combat, hostage negotiation and surveillance techniques. The objective is to create team spirit, for effective team work is a vital element for operational efficacy. A collection of individuals armed to the teeth lacking teamwork or leadership is at best unprofessional and at worst dangerous.
Strict discipline allied to a rigid and professional chain of command is essential. I am of the view each operational unit should be headed up by a member of Inspector rank. There are a number of highly experienced Sergeants in the Emergency Response Unit and consideration should be given to promoting them, thus ensuring valuable leadership experience and training.
The units should be under the control of and tasked by the Regional Assistant Commissioner. I am aware this is a departure from the normal line of command in the Garda, but in the interests of speedy and effective deployment, it is the proven optimum structure.
While the ERU members are appointed detectives, I cannot see this as a necessity for the regional units. Apart from the wearing of distinctive markings, being members of the uniform section will have the effect of removing elitism and moreover, make for ease of rotation.
The situation heretofore when the RSU were required to carry their firearms and bullet-proof vests in the boot of the car out of sight were, to say the least, farcical.
For the key to firearms training is not the time spent on the firing range - although this is a vital component of training - but familiarity with the weapon. Police tacticians all agree that the firearm should be regarded as an extension of the person, in that handling it on a daily basis is a necessary part for safety and use.
I fully understand that this raises concerns among some right-thinking citizens but with the rise in armed gangs and dissident republican activity there is little choice. There are many checks and balances such as the ombudsman, garda complaints board, not to mention civil remedy and the courts.
An unarmed garda force is a utopian ideal. However, with the gun culture currently existing in this country and the escalation in gun-related crime, sadly, it is a luxury we cannot afford.
So, therefore special measures are necessary to maintain the rule of law and protect our citizens. The current situation cannot be allowed to continue.
Michael Carty is a former Garda Chief Superintendent and ex-Commander of the Emergency Response Unit