Part 3- Security Theatre

Islamic State terrorism in Europe brought Ireland’s intelligence architecture once more into focus. After these attacks there were public concerns with citizens fearing a similar attack within this state. Following each major attack in Europe the Taoiseach of the day would normally announce that the National Security Committee (NSC) had met and that the situation would be continually monitored. Even a new committee ‘Committee F’ was established for more discussions with more officials. Concurrently, the Gardaí and the military would conduct public exercises to assuage the fears of the population. Overall, little changed and the intelligence structures which failed against the PIRA remained unchanged. This is what security expert Bruce Schneier describes as ‘Security Theatre’.

‘Security Theatre’ make people feel more secure in two ways:

  • the first is to make people actually secure and hope they notice; and
  • the second is to make people feel more secure without making them actually secure and hope they don’t notice’. (Schneier 2008).

The latter has been the Irish government’s preferred method.

Following a number of scandals within An Garda Síochána (GS) the Government established a Commission on the Future of Policing. The Commission, appointed in May 2017, was tasked to cover all aspects of policing, including state security and immigration. The Commission members was selected by the then Minister for Justice, Ms Frances Fitzgerald T.D. Ms Kathleen O’Toole selected to chair the Commission was joined by twelve other members. Bearing in mind that the Commission was to examine state security it is incredulous, if not negligent, of the minister not to include a member or former members of An Garda Síochána or the Defence Forces or someone with a national intelligence background; a necessity recognised even as far back as 1973 for Finlay Inquiry. Mr Conor Brady, a member of the Commission with the greatest insight of the GS organisation later resigned from the Commission as he believed the government was not taking the commission seriously seeing it as nothing more than a ‘political expedient’ (C. Brady 2017) (O’Doherty 2017). What’s new!

The setting up a civilian intelligence agency had already become a public discussion issue and was something the Commission would have to address. However, it wasn’t long before it became obvious where the Commission was heading. Within a month and before the commission deliberated the Chairperson declared that ‘splitting security and policing systems of the gardaí might not be the answer to tackling threats of terrorism’ (Finn 2017); The then Taoiseach, Mr Varadkar, warned that ‘national security could be compromised for years in setting up an agency’ (O'Halloran 2017); and later ‘Ireland may be too small a country to establish a CIA, KGB, or Israeli Mossad-style security agency’ (O'Halloran 2018). It is noteworthy that Mr Varadkar chose these intelligence agencies as his examples for an intelligence agency as in Ireland these would have adverse public perceptions among citizens. Therefore it could be understood that tone was set for the Commission and there were few surprises when the Commission reported.

When the Commission Report was published its flaws regarding national security were obvious. For example, the Commission based its report on its own Principle Two which states ‘the national security function should not be lodged entirely within the police organisation and it is now necessary to augment An Garda Síochána’s responsibility for security operations’ (O'Toole 2018, x). The problem of course is that An Garda Síochána is not tasked with the ‘national security function’ never mind being ‘lodged entirely’ within the force. The Commission failed to understand the difference between what is meant by ‘Security of the State’ an Irish state term, which is assigned to the Garda force, and the term National Security.

The Commission’s lack of relevant knowledge was further highlighted when it outlined the functions assigned to An Garda Síochána (O'Toole 2018, 10). It referenced the Garda Síochána Act 2005 but failed to include other state security functions assigned to the force as amended by the Garda Síochána (Policing Authority and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2015. These functions include inter alia:

  • protecting the state from espionage and ‘identifying foreign capabilities, intentions or activities within or relating to the State that impact on the international well-being or economic well-being of the State, and
  • co-operating with authorities in other states and international organisations aimed at preserving international peace, public order and security.’

It is incredulous that the Commission ignored these functions. The fact that a Minister for Justice in 2015 assigned these functions to a police force in the first place is itself incredulous and an indictment of amateurism at the top of Irish government. It should be noted that if one compares these functions with those assigned to the UK Security Services (commonly referred to as MI5) in the Security Service Act 1989 (UK Government 1989) one would find the wordings very similar.

The Commission, which if you remember included no intelligence expert, stated it was not convinced that setting up a separate agency was ‘either necessary or realistic at the present time’. Again, it was incredible that for such a serious matter, the Commission failed to give the reasons ‘why it was not convinced’.

The Report was accepted by the Minister for Justice, Mr. Flanagan and the government. The obvious flaws in the Report were not commented upon or challenged by politicians, academics, security correspondents or security commentators except for the Sunday Business Post (Murphy 2018). This in my opinion highlights the paucity in this state of independent viewpoints separate from government on national security and defence matters. This surely explains our amateurish approach to defence and security matters.

One of the recommendations of the Commission was the establishment of a Strategic Threat Analysis Centre (STAC). This title was later changed by the minister to National Security Analysis Centre (NSAC). It was recommended that the Centre would be  based in the Department of the Taoiseach and headed by a National Security Coordinator with responsibility for synchronising national security strategy. The Centre would be tasked with developing and providing briefings and advice to the Taoiseach on all matters of national security and should bring together all sources of security intelligence and information from An Garda Síochána, the Department of Justice and Equality, the National Cyber Security Centre, the Defence Forces, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and any other sources.

When the Commission Report was approved by the government however any clout given to the new office was neutered. For example, when the advert for the Coordinator vacancy was published it exposed that: the appointment was no longer the National Security Coordinator but the Director of The National Security Analysis Centre and answerable not to the Taoiseach but to his Secretary General; none of the other major responsibilities recommended for the position were mentioned. It should also be noted that it was reported that the person selected for the appointment did not have an intelligence background and did not stay long in the appointment before being redirected to other duties connected to Covid. It should also be noted that nothing of importance has been heard from the NSAC in the meantime. 

What we have here is a fine example of ‘Security Theatre’ at its best by the Irish government.