Armed units will not change Garda image, says Nóirín O’Sullivan

New 55-strong unit will tackle terrorism and serious organised crime in Dublin

Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald TD inspects the new Garda Armed Support Unit (ASU) for the Dublin region, at Garda HQ in Phoenix Park. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald TD inspects the new Garda Armed Support Unit (ASU) for the Dublin region, at Garda HQ in Phoenix Park. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

A new command structure for armed Garda units is to be rolled out early next year, but Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan has insisted it will not undermine the force’s unarmed status.

Speaking at the launch of the new Dublin armed support unit, Ms O’Sullivan accepted the manner of its deployment may further marginalise some communities if not managed properly.

“No, I don’t believe people want to see armed police,” she said, when asked if an armed unit would be welcomed on residential streets.

“I think when the units are deployed in their normal operating mode, it’s a softer approach. But when they have to deploy in overt mode they can do that as a tactical deployment.”

The new 55-strong unit will combat the threat from terrorism and serious organised crime in the capital. Plans for its establishment were accelerated when the Kinahan-Hutch feud erupted in Dublin during the general election campaign in the spring.

Gangland activity

As well as providing an armed Garda presence at Dublin Airport and port, it will also conduct patrols and checkpoints in areas with significant gun feuding or other gangland activity.

The unit represents the final strand of rolling out armed support units in all regions of the country to complement the work of the Emergency Response Unit.

Ms O’Sullivan said all the units specialising in providing an armed response to flashpoint incidents as well as back-up for uniformed unarmed gardaí would now be drawn under a more centralised command.

The new structure represents the first time the armed response specialisation in the Garda has been considered large enough to warrant a dedicated command and training structure.

The commissioner said the establishment of regional support units around the country, and now the armed response unit for Dublin, was “the first step towards allowing us develop the armed response capability that we need right around the country.

“By the first quarter of next year we will establish a National Firearms Command which will mean the Emergency Response Unit and all of the armed response units in the regions will be trained [centrally].”

She said she would be making the case to Government for the creation of a number of senior posts to command the armed teams, all headed by a detective chief superintendent.

Proud tradition

However, she did not believe the developments represented a move away from the Garda as an unarmed force. “It’s something we’re very proud of; it’s a tradition and a legacy we’ll never give up.”

However, the Garda also needed to “recognise the challenges” of modern policing in the Republic and “have a response commensurate with that”.

The new armed response unit for Dublin will work in the same way as the regional support units around the country. They will patrol in high-powered vehicles – new BMWs and Audi Q7 utility vehicles – dressed in uniforms unique to their unit.

When the need to switch to armed mode arises, they will switch into tactical clothing, comprising black overalls and ballistic vests, helmets and goggles and other protective wear.

They will unlock the firearms secured in the boots of their vehicles and arm themselves with MP7 machine guns, stun guns or a range of pepper sprays. The sprays vary in size and can be used to overpower one suspect at close range or a large group of people over a greater distance.

The vehicles are also kitted out with telescopic ladders, battering rams for breaking in doors and hooligan bars for taking doors off hinges.

The armed units were first recommended by the Garda Inspectorate, led by Kathleen O’Toole, 10 years ago, and the first two were rolled out in Limerick and Cork cities in 2008.

The inspectorate reviewed the report of the Barr tribunal of inquiry into the fatal shooting of John Carthy by the Emergency Response Unit (ERU) in Abbeylara. Its review concluded that second-tier armed response teams were needed to contain incidents involving firearms pending the arrival of the ERU.