The Defence Forces special forces unit, the Army Ranger Wing (ARW), was stood down from protecting Simon Coveney on his visit to Ukraine before the Minister entered the war-torn country.
A decision was taken that the Garda’s Emergency Response Unit (ERU) would provide overt protection for the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence during his one-day visit to Kyiv.
The decision has angered senior officers in the Defence Forces because of the belief the ARW is better suited to undertake close protection missions in volatile areas.
“What’s the actual point of spending money on the ARW if we’re not going to use them? Better to disband them if Government has no use for them,” a defence source said.
When asked about the move by The Irish Times a spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said the department“ does not comment on security arrangements”.
The ARW was originally tasked with the mission and had put in place a security plan and an experienced team to carry it out. This included a doctor and troops who spoke Russian.
However, Defence Forces’ headquarters were told the ARW was being stood down and the Garda would be handling security exclusively.
The explanation was that there were legal concerns about sending a heavily armed Defence Forces unit overseas to an active war zone.
The nature of these concerns is not clear. The Government’s Triple Lock policy, which requires Dáil, Government and UN approval before deploying Irish troops overseas, applies only to contingents of 12 or more. The ARW deployment was to be fewer than 12.
A Garda source said the decision was taken on the basis of a “security assessment”.
Mr Coveney was flown to Poland on Wednesday by a Defence Forces aircraft before being escorted to the Ukrainian border by the Polish military. He was then picked up by Ukrainian special forces, who provided transport during his visit. He was driven to Kyiv where he met senior politicians and assured them of Ireland's continued support.
Throughout his visit he was accompanied by heavily armed members of the ERU, the most highly trained tactical unit in the Garda.
It is made up of several ex-ARW members and the two units frequently train together.
Defence Forces members pointed out that when other national leaders visited Ukraine, they had been protected by their countries’ special forces units.
UK prime minister Boris Johnson was protected by SAS troops during his walkabout in Kyiv.
Although Russia forces have broken off their ground attack on Kyiv to focus on the east, the capital continues to come under missile attack.
“The ERU is extremely highly trained and capable. But close protection in a war zone is a SOF [Special Operations Forces] task, not a police one,” said an Army officer.
“I don’t know the reason behind the decision but it’s seen as a bit of a ‘screw you’,” they said.
Another source pointed out that almost all members of the ARW had now rotated through Mali, where the unit contributes to a UN mission, at least once and many had combat experience.
“It’s a massive betrayal,” independent TD and former ARW officer Cathal Berry said. “Police should be used for police functions and military for military functions.”
He said the Garda were unlikely to have secure communications, meaning it would have been easier to track Mr Coveney’s location.
The protection of politicians within Ireland is typically provided by the Special Detective Unit (SDU), with the ERU and Defence Forces also contributing during high profile events, such as the visit of a US president.
SDU officers usually provide protection on overseas visits to peaceful countries. But in recent years, the ARW has been drafted in during ministerial visits to volatile areas such as Mali and Lebanon.
It has also provided protection services to overseas diplomatic missions during periods of unrest.