MUCH debate has taken place on the various perspectives surrounding the forthcoming visit of Pope Francis to our shores.

The discussions have mainly centred on who he will meet, who he should meet, ticket allocation, venues, travelling and traffic arrangements.

But ensuring the safety and security of the pontiff is a vital element of the visit, and behind the scenes, significant work by the security services is in train.

Of all the factors that determine the effectiveness of a modern police force, ensuring the safety of a visiting head of state is the ultimate measure of competence. Anything in the nature of an attack on such a person reflects the security forces as incapable and portrays the State as inept.

Moreover, the criticism internationally would have a profoundly negative impact on foreign investment and tourism.

The Garda record in carrying out high visibility security operations is faultless.

The Pope’s visit is particularly challenging in the context of the sophisticated and determined terrorist attacks by unseen enemies, whose objectives are not fully understood, that have taken place in Europe and elsewhere.

Therefore detailed research, planning and professional expertise is vital.

Essentially, the objective of the Garda authorities is to devise a security operation that will minimise any threat through planning, situational awareness and reaction.

The first task is carrying out a detailed and careful threat assessment. It must evaluate the risk when the VIP is stationary and moving.

A thorough evaluation of the environment is critical. Pope Francis is not visiting Ireland to be hidden away in secrecy – the objective is to be visible and meet as many people as possible.

By now, the Special Detective Unit (SDU) will have evaluated the domestic threats and the Security and Intelligence Branch at Garda Headquarters will have consulted with the security authorities in the Vatican, the Italian police and Interpol.

All the relevant information will have been sent to the unit carrying out the close-in security, the Emergency Response Unit (ERU). The SDU will continue to monitor the situation prior to and during the visit.

Once the threat assessment has been accomplished, the protective plan will be engineered so that it affords an acceptable level of protection within the limits of convenience to the person being protected.

The plan must offer security without being too restrictive and be consistent with the threat level. It will

be divided into three phases:

■ Direct protection – the close protection the Pope will receive while moving on foot;

■ Mobile – when he travels by motor vehicle in a convoy;

■ Static – when he is either in residence, at a venue or in temporary accommodation.

The plan must ensure the communication network is state of the art in terms of secrecy and reception and call signs are clearly understood by all.

The operation must ensure that:

■ A clear chain of command is in place and is fully understood by all participants;

■ Provision is made for modifications of the plan should the need arise, and all participants are aware of the modifications;

■ All the necessary equipment is in good working order, and the personnel using it are fully trained and skilled in its use.

The environment in which Pope Francis will travel will require close scrutiny. Areas such as rooftops, derelict buildings, and vacant premises with particular emphasis on places where a sniper could operate must be identified and evaluated and appropriate security measures put in place.

An outer cordon must be established. While this affords a certain degree of protection, it is the inner cordon that is vital. The Pope will be escorted in convoy. It should not contain more than five vehicles, otherwise it becomes unwieldy. The ideal is four vehicles, each with a defined role and manned by personnel with a high standard of performance in terms of tactics and driving techniques.

When the Pope travels on foot, he is most vulnerable and a carefully planned strategy must be in place, with the aim of eliminating or reducing the opportunity for an attack during movement by foot by using individual skills, team skills and foot formations to provide a ring of human protection barriers between him and a potential attacker.

Moreover, the plan must cater for the immediate extraction of the Pope in the event of an attack.

The ideal system is the box formation where the close-in personnel position themselves in a defined formation.

The close-in protectors should position themselves each side of the VIP. A third should be positioned to the rear and one in front.

He then has all sides protected. As the group moves along the crowd, the person in the front should be alert to the positioning and movements of the hands of those in the crowd. Special attention should be given to the second row as experience has shown an attacker will choose the second row and launch an attack from there.

The key to optimum security is to stay alert, anticipate and plan.

Prevention is the objective, but there must be a plan how a threat will be handled should it occur.

While no security plan can by definition be 100pc effective, I have no doubt, given their experience, expertise and training that An Garda Síochána is well capable of ensuring the safety of Pope Francis.