Helen McEntee ‘sometimes’ feels unsafe in public life

Department of Justice and Garda reviewing security and protection for office-holders

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee TD has “sometimes” felt unsafe in public life and said she believes protesters targeting public figures at their homes were “crossing a line”.

She said her department was carrying out a review with the Garda about the level of security provided to office holders at present, adding that an attack on a politician in Ireland was "always a possibility".

"That is why we need to make sure the supports and the measures are there . . . and we don't want to see incidents like we have seen in the UK," she said in reference to a number of serious attacks on politicians in Britain, including the killing last month of Conservative MP Sir David Amess.

The Minister's comments at the opening of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (Agsi) annual conference in Killarney come amid growing concern among senior Garda officers for the safety of politicians and other public figures.

While most politicians were previously provided with an armed Garda driver, who doubled as a close personal protection officer, those resources were scaled back over a decade ago as a cost-saving exercise during the recession.

However, Garda officers suspect that some small protest and far-right groups have become extreme in their outlook and that some members could pose a threat to politicians or public figures.

Homes targeted

A number of politicians and broadcasters, as well as chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan, have been targeted at their homes by small protest groups, some of whom opposed Covid-19 vaccines.

“Do I feel safe? The vast majority of the time, yes,” Ms McEntee said when asked by reporters at the conference. “Have I felt certain situations where I haven’t been? Yes. But I think we need to be measured in our response. My own department is carrying out a review of the safety of office-holders, so that is across the board. We will obviously await the response to that review.”

Fianna Fáil senator Malcolm Byrne is bringing forward a Bill that would make it an offence to engage in targeted protesting outside private homes and Ms McEntee said this was something she would look at.

“We have heard from many of my colleagues in recent weeks and months, particularly after the very tragic incident in the UK, where people have said they don’t feel safe so all of that has to be taken on board,” she said.

Separately, Ms McEntee said planned Garda reforms that have provoked strong opposition from within the force were the biggest changes ever to Irish policing, adding not all elements would please everyone.

Garda oversight

She was speaking after Agsi joined Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, chief superintendents and superintendents in criticising the Policing, Security and Community Safety Bill, which has been framed to reform the Garda and its oversight agencies.

“I think policing has changed in the last 100 years and any policing system across the world has had to move and adapt and change, and I think it’s important we have a system that is up to date and is held accountable,” the Minister said.

One contentious element of the Bill relates to investigators from Garda oversight agencies being able to carry out no-notice searches, without a warrant, including at Garda stations.

Asked if searches without a warrant should be allowed in the Republic, Ms McEntee said: “I think in some instances we have to make sure that there is an ability for an oversight body to come in and do their work. Whether that means without a warrant or not, we will have to work through this process.”

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times