herald

Monday 22 October 2018

On patrol with the Garda's elite unit

They're the officers in the frontline battle against the crime lords and terrorists, as Cormac Byrne discovers

INTERCEPTING one tonne bombs, dealing with hostage situations and protecting foreign dignitaries from harm -- it's all in a day's work for the ERU.

With the republican dissident threat increasing and gang feuds escalating, the work of the Emergency Response Unit (ERU) has never been more vital.

I was able to witness ERU operations close up by accompanying a team on a mission in Finglas as they attempted to quell gang tensions.

Transported by jeep to a location in Finglas, our photographer and I arrived just as a "super checkpoint" was already assembled.

As uniformed gardai waded through the traffic pulling over suspect vehicles, four ERU officers constantly looked on, keeping their focus, implementing their training, guarding the peace.

My guide for the evening told me that the reaction of commuters to the ERU presence has been largely positive.

Weaponry

Their appearance can be a little intimidating, fully blacked out and carrying an array of weaponry -- much of their new equipment came as a result of the Abbeylara shooting tragedy a decade ago.

An on-site officer explained to me how each member of the unit designs the lay-out of their own suit to conform with their preferences to allow them to find, by touch, their weapon of choice for a given situation.

Constant training and simulated exercises keep their senses finely tuned and at any one time there is an ERU team training to deal with highly volatile situations.

An officer's journey into the ranks of the ERU begins with a two-week initiation dubbed 'hell week', where candidates are both physically and mentally assessed.

"You're given tasks to perform. You could be in a pool or on the side of a mountain, depending on the task," an officer explained. "They are tasks designed to test you mentally and physically, they involve working for long periods with little sleep.

"We have to see how people interact and how they operate when tired or hungry. They are designed to test people at their lowest point.

"The failure rate is very high and it's a success to even complete the two-week course. Even then you may not be deemed suitable."

ERU members now carry a range of 'less lethal' weapons, including ASP batons, OC spray, bean bag rounds, Ferret CS gas projectiles and tasers.

As part of their training, each member is made to sample the impact of their weapons -- from being subdued by a Taser to being asked to perform tasks after being hit with OC (pepper) spray.

The ERU has to respond to every situation that might arise and the recent purchase by the Air Corps of six AW 139 helicopters, each capable of carrying a full ERU team, means they can respond to a situation anywhere in the country within one hour.

The unit is now aiming to improve its maritime capabilities to deal with dangerous situations at sea and on waterways and officers have been working with the Garda Dog Unit to develop the use of police dogs.

Previous operations have seen the ERU intercept massive bombs, including one vehicle loaded with explosives that was apprehended at Dun Laoghaire and believed to have been destined for the Aintree Grand National.

The ERU managed to infiltrate IRA training camps at Clonmel in 2004 and the Co Meath town of Stamullen in 1999, leading to the arrest of up to 20 IRA members. The dissident republican threat has reared its head once more -- signified by the shooting dead of suspected IRA member Seamus McMahon in Dundalk on March 21 by two gunmen and the recent bomb discoveries in the North.

The ERU has evolved in the 23 years it has been in existence and is now held in high regard internationally.

Tough

"We're one of the busiest armed and tactical teams in Europe and among the most experienced, we're considered to have been very successful in our activities," an officer said.

"Anyone who becomes a member of the ERU has to want to be here. You don't see a lot of your family, you have to be tough, resilient and highly motivated.

"We don't like being referred to as 'elite', every ERU officer begins their career as a rank-and-file garda.

"Our operations are only successful because of the work done by ordinary members of the force who compile intelligence that we act upon, we're all part of the same team."

hnews@herald.ie

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