“This time last week nobody would have imagined that such a vicious attack would be carried out at a UK concert predominantly attended by teenagers. Here we are, a few days later, and the world is a very different place. Clearly the goalposts are changing constantly. There seems to be no place, and no level, that terrorists won’t go to.”
These are the words of Cork Sergeant Peter Murphy, the man in charge of the communication centre at Anglesea Street Garda Station.
In his day-to-day job, Sgt Murphy coordinates responses to incidents across Cork city and county. He also makes sure information on those incidents is clearly communicated to both the ambulance service and the fire service.
Now, in the wake of this week’s devastating terror attack in Manchester, which saw 22 deaths and 59 injuries after a suicide bomber targeted an Ariana Grande concert, Sgt Murphy said the emergency services here needs to reassess its own strategies and responses in the eventuality that terrorism lands on Irish shores.
“When these things happen so close to home, it straight away makes people stop and think… that could have been us. That could have happened here. That was almost on our doorstep,” he said.
“While there’s no such thing as being 100% prepared for these types of things, unfortunately, it’s probably no harm for people to take stock and seriously assess their own vulnerability and for response agencies to take a step back and ask how would we be fixed in this scenario, if it were to happen here.”
This is precisely the question Government top brass is now asking. This morning, Taoiseach Enda Kenny called an interagency meeting to look at the security in place here in case of a terror attack.
He also indicated that the Government is thinking about setting up a new security and intelligence unit.
“We can’t proceed on the basis that everything is calm and rosy, that nothing could happen here,” said Mr Kenny, speaking in Dáil Eireann yesterday.
“There is an issue here as to whether we should have a security and intelligence unit, separate from the way the structure currently operates.”
Mr Kenny went on to tell the Dáil he thought a terror attack in this country was possible, but not likely. This is a standpoint shared by Sgt Murphy.
“We aren’t expecting an attack here, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be ready for one,” he said.
At the moment, Gardai on the street do not receive specialist counter terrorism training. All emergency response agencies do, however, take part in regular interagency exercises and training, including mock scenarios where an element of terrorism is occasionally introduced.
“We train for scenarios that could happen in a railway station, or at the airport for example, and something we incorporate aspects such as a terrorist or subversive element. They’re taking place on an ongoing basis, so it’s something we have prepared for,” explained Sgt Murphy.
“If we did have any sort of an incident like that, there are national guidelines in place that we would follow. We’d have effectively what you’d call a command and control structure which would overlay everything.
“And if there was a big incident, such as a bombing or an airplane going down or a chemical attack, it would be escalated to national level very quickly so that you would have pretty much unlimited additional assets which would be collapsed into the area wherever is needed.”
Sgt Murphy explained the response to any possible attack would be predominantly based on the nature and location of the incident.
“There is a huge difference between if something happens in a railway station or an airport or a shopping centre versus if something happens on the street. In the first three, those at the facility will already have in place their own internal and external emergency plans. Internal means that they can deal with it themselves and external means they have to bring in outside help from the emergency services,” he explained.
“These plans are already in place, they’re risk assessed, and they’re exercised regularly. So if something does happen, things automatically fall into place - people know where they need to go, what they need to do if there’s a lockdown, for example, or if there’s an escalation of response… but if something happens out on the street, there is no plan. For the first few minutes it’s just going to be the people that are caught up in it. They’re going to run one way or the other, and it will be chaos. So the street is the least desirable scenario here."
Sgt Murphy reiterated that he does not foresee a terrorist attack in Cork or, indeed, Ireland in the near future, but called on citizens to remain vigilant should they witness suspicious activity.
“People should be constantly vigilant,” he said.
“Those living in local communities, whether they are in cities or in rural areas, they are best placed to spot anything out of the ordinary. If there is a strange or suspicious person or vehicle… if in doubt, check it out. The vast majority of the time it will turn out to be something innocent, but now and again people will come across something that does turn out to be malicious in nature. So it’s very important that people pick up the phone and let us know if they think something unlawful is taking place.”