Setting up dedicated intelligence agency in Ireland 'would take years'

The London attacks have raised fresh questions about Ireland's approach to intelligence and security...

Setting up dedicated intelligence agency in Ireland 'would take years'

File photo. Picture by: Rolf Kremming/DPA/PA Images

Is Ireland a likely target for a terrorist attack?

It's a question that's asked after most major international attacks - but the revelation that one of the London attackers spent time in Ireland has raised fresh concerns about Ireland's preparedness and counter-terrorism resources.

Sean Hartnett is a former British intelligence officer & author of Charlie One: The True Story of an Irishman in the British Army and His Role in Covert Counter-Terrorism Operations in Northern Ireland. He spoke to the Pat Kenny Show this morning about Ireland's preparedness, and whether or not we are a likely target.

Despite our declared neutrality, Sean suggests that we are not immune from being targeted. 

He observed: "We're a possible target [...] The use of Shannon Airport by US military for refuelling stops is very well publicised [...] We are a very soft target - it would be very, very easy for someone outside of Dublin to make an attack.

"You can take any small village or town in Ireland. All you need now is a vehicle, or a kitchen knife. It's not like the old days of the IRA, where a major bomb would be planted or weapons would be used - it's a completely different beast now."

A reality of modern counter-terrorism operations is that it can be an extremely expensive, labour-intensive process. Sean detailed some of the resources required.

"To keep one person under surveillance, it's 40 to 60 personnel," he told Pat. "That's made up of between 12 and 18 surveillance operators on the ground. Backing them up you have an operations officer, you have intelligence officers, you have communications officers... You have everything from mechanics to technicians to cooks - everything that's required to keep them on the ground for a 24-hour period.

"Remember those personnel then have to be rotated out to give them rest - so it's a massive operation," he added.

Sean observed that the level of surveillance technology available to British intelligence would be "generations ahead" of what Irish officers have access to.

He suggested: "If tomorrow morning it was decided that a separate intelligence agency was going to be set up, it would take years to set it up. 90% of the personnel that go for selection for British intelligence fail the selection process. Of the 10% that pass, 25% of them quit after two years due to the intensity and the pressure that they're under.

"You have to develop an entire network across the country of technology - cameras, listening devices, encrypted communications. If the Taoiseach decides tomorrow that he's going to form a completely independent intelligence agency - which is what is needed - then it's not going to happen overnight. It will take years."

An Irish 'COBRA'

Leo Varadkar - the new Fine Gael leader and the man expected to become next Taoiseach in the coming weeks - has indicated his intention to establish a COBRA-style committee in Ireland.

COBRA refers to Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms, the location where the UK government's crisis coordination committees typically meet in the aftermath of major incidents such as a terrorist attack. The additional 'A' in the acronym allows for the fact that most meetings take place in Briefing Room A in Whitehall, just behind 10 Downing Street.

In a statement, Minister Varadkar said: "Although Ireland is not at high risk of a terrorist attack, it is important to be prepared for every eventuality.

"The new Committee will allow greater Ministerial involvement in preparing for and managing major security threats, and more extensive cross-Departmental cooperation on these issues."

Sean Hartnett, however, warns that such a committee will require substantial external support.

"The committee would have nothing backing it up," he told Pat. "They've got An Garda Síochana, the Irish Defence Forces, and that's it. To be fair to the Gardaí, they are so poorly resourced, poorly trained - they need vast amounts of resources and finances pumped into them. They're overwhelmed as it is.

"This committee may well fit, but there's no agency to supply them with the intelligence they need - so they're going to be making uninformed decisions."

Sean also spoke about Theresa May's controversial pledge to "change" human rights laws if they restrict efforts to fights to terrorism and extremism.

He argued that such a hardline approach "unfortunately doesn't work either [...] What it does... it alienates you within that community.

"You'd be far better getting a conviction for an offence, and then either prison sentences or deportation based on that."