Ordinary people doing an extraordinary job

The Emergency Response Unit is regarded by many as the most elite Unit within the Force. However, when John O’Keeffe spent the week leading up to the Papal visit with them he found humility at their core

Mention of the Emergency Response Unit (ERU) in conversation is likely to meet the type of hushed tones normally reserved for discussions about MI5 or Mossad. However, having spent time with its members while they prepared for the Papal visit, I am sorry to disappoint. “We are regular gardaí, no more no less – we just have specialist training,” was said to me on countless occasions.

Detective Chief Superintendent Gerry Russell, with responsibility for Special Operations and Tactics Command (STOC), suggests that the current ERU (alongside the Armed Support Units) are in fact one of the reasons why the Force remains largely unarmed. “That An Garda Síochána has been able to maintain its almost unique and internationally coveted status as an unarmed police service, is in no small measure due to the fact that, since its foundation, it has always retained a small cadre of armed specialist officers which provided the requisite support to their unarmed colleagues, when the necessity arose,” he says.

While the Unit has undergone various iterations over the years, in 2017, control of the ERU migrated to the newly formed Special Operations and Tactics Command (STOC). Within STOC, ERU joins its sister Armed Support Unit (ASU) and the National Negotiator Unit (NNU) in providing what Commissioner Staines in 1922 described as the supportive ‘stiffening’ for the unarmed national Irish police service.

But let’s be frank however – preparing for a visit of a sitting Pontiff was always going to a special moment in the ERU’s life and planning for the event within STOC began back in February 2018. Detective Superintendent Alan McGovern, who heads up the ERU, reflects on the weekend. “The ERU are well versed at running high-risk, high-profile and logistically challenging escorts but the summer of 2018 has been particularly challenging with two Royal visits in quick succession, for the first time in the history of the State, followed by the Papal visit,” he says.

The Papal visit offered some unique challenges to McGovern and his team. “From a STOC perspective, the visit was an enormous success. Pope Francis was accompanied at all times by a 30-person strong delegation and 75 Vatican accredited media personnel or ‘VAMPs.’ What made this operation somewhat different was the unique, and from a close protection perspective, character of the Holy Father who is remarkable in his spontaneity and his desire to be physically available to his followers; often stopping his cavalcade, without warning, to mix with devotees.”

The ERU provided a close protection team, a counter assault (CAT team) and observer marksmen for the duration of the visit. STOC also provided a Strategic Firearms Commander, an Operational and Tactical Firearms Commander as well as a Tactical Firearms Advisor and a National Negotiator at the Command Centre at Dublic Castle to support the overall operation. This was also mirrored in Knock.

Yet again however, McGovern wants to move away from plaudits for just his men and women. “It is at times such as this that I always think of the families of gardaí and the sacrifices they make. The effort put into an event such as this would not be possible without their support and backing. I’d like to make a special mention to all of the uniformed members who stood out in typical Irish weather to ensure this operation ran smoothly. Occasions such as the Papal visit and the effort put in by everyone gives us a reminder of why we are proud to be part of An Garda Síochána and proud to be Irish.”

My time with the ERU was brief, but hugely enlightening. Here were a highly trained group of men and women who wished to take no praise for what they did. Yet as McGovern says, “we closely monitor every person and every movement when required to so do, but, like a good football referee, we are almost invisible to the untrained eye.”

You have been warned…

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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