Opinion divided on whether Garda should retain security remit

An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces as to whether, under such circumstances, responsibility for national security should remain with the police.

There are divergent views between what might be described, broadly, as traditionalists and modernisers.

The latter group argues that, irrespective of the nationality of a new commissioner, the current structures overseeing national security are inadequate and in urgent need of reform.

Traditionalists point out, with considerable evidence to support them, that the State faced unprecedented security challenges from domestic republican terrorism for some 30 years, and to some extent still does, but has met those challenges and has won.

Much of that was down to gardaí being close to the communities they police, they argue, and local information being shared up the line to security.

“The PSNI lost security to MI5,” observed one former garda. “We would be the envy of the PSNI now in that regard.”

The case for reform rests essentially on the proposition that Ireland has changed, as has its relationship with a changed world, and that the nature of the threat to national security has metamorphosed in ways that were inconceivable even a decade ago.

Therefore, goes the argument, Ireland’s preparedness to defend vital national interests, and the structures to give effect to that preparedness, must also change and be better co-ordinated.

At present the main role of An Garda Síochána is in investigating crime. Yet it also has primary responsibility for national security, a function which the Garda itself expresses in terms of identifying and analysing the threat to the State from terrorists and organised crime.

In most other countries these roles are separate, and carried out by separate organisations, something some observers here suggest means advantage Ireland, not the opposite.

The Garda section that discharges the State security function is the Crime and Security Branch (CSB), also known as C3. While the serious crime investigation element of the unit’s work is in line with the more traditional role of police, the security element is different.

Telephone tapping

It involves, essentially, spying on targets – gathering intelligence through conventional surveillance and eavesdropping, either through telephone tapping or bugging. A crucial role, thereafter, is analysing the information gathered, assessing it and seeking patterns that allow for prediction.

Thus there is a strong pre-emptive aspect to this work, as opposed to investigating an event after the commission of a crime.

The security aspect of what C3 does is also helped by the fact that gardaí working on security have easy and immediate access to community-level intelligence via their colleagues on the beat, as it were.

A former CSB member described assisting US law enforcement officers in Ireland investigating a money trail in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. He went to Kilkenny – location of the person of interest – and simply asked his local Garda colleagues for information on “your man”.

“The Yanks couldn’t believe we were able to work like this,” said the retired garda, adding “they were very envious”.

The Defence Forces’ intelligence section is known as J2 and operates from McKee Barracks in Dublin. The “J” denotes joint, indicating that the unit is comprised of, and serves, all sections of the Defence Forces – the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps.

Like the Garda, the work of J2 in Ireland has traditionally been geared heavily towards monitoring terrorists and terrorist sympathisers – in the IRA and the various manifestations of republican terrorism, especially during the Troubles, and more latterly within dissident republicanism.° J2 is also involved in garnering, from UN mission reports and other open sources, intelligence of use to Irish UN contingents.

C3 and J2 co-operate and share information. According to sources, senior figures in the two organisations meet once or twice a month. Both also have officers working permanently with the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), whose function is protecting vital Irish national interests, such as power supply or private enterprise centres of critical economic activity.

The protection sought is from online digital attack by foreign government-sponsored agents or from simple criminal extortion.


This cyberattack activity is growing, and with three separate entities each playing a national security role – the Garda, Defence Forces and the NCSC – some players feel there is need for an overarching co-ordinating body; a National Security Agency, in effect.

The possibility that the ultimate head of the Garda national security unit could be a foreign national crystallises matters for some. It would be “inconceivable”, according to one former intelligence officer, for national security to remain with the Garda if it were headed by a foreign national.

“There are a number of issues,” said the retired operative. “First legacy issues. Could we trust a former UK police officer to preside over a renewed investigation into, say, the Dublin-Monaghan bombings, for instance, or the disappearance of [British army officer] Robert Nairac, who was rumoured to have operated this side of the Border?

“What about an American or Canadian? Both are members of Nato, we aren’t.

“There is no such thing as a friendly intelligence service . . . [We] are being spied on all the time by a number of nations and you can be sure, some of those nations would be very happy to think one of their nationals was head of our national security.”

That presupposes treachery somewhere along the line by a new, foreign-born Garda commissioner. Treason is defined in the Constitution as levying war against the State or assisting another state or person to do so, or attempting by force to overthrow the government.

Assuming a new Garda commissioner, a foreign national from a foreign police force or a foreign civilian, formally became a member of the Garda Síochána, they would take the Garda oath under which they pledge to uphold the laws and Constitution of this State.

But would that be enough for the doubters – or are events moving in another direction?