Senior politicians deserve full protection of proper security detail

The protest outside the home of Health Minister Simon Harris last week.

Cabinet ministers should have their Garda drivers reinstated immediately. The decision on ministers losing this security detail was taken during the height of the recession. 

Admittedly money saving efforts were occurring everywhere but this one was an example of gesture politics that needs now to be reversed.

We have some of the most accessible politicians in the world, if you don’t meet them on the street you’ll see them at a funeral or can pop along to one of their constituency clinics — this includes government ministers. 

This is largely a strength of Irish politics, but it does not mean that we should be careless when it comes to our politicians being properly protected.

Ministerial security is a hot topic following the protest that took place at the home of Health Minister Simon Harris on Sunday in Co Wicklow. 

At the time the minister was inside with his wife and baby daughter, who is less than three weeks old. 

It was appalling to see the ill-judged actions of these eejits but also heartening to see such condemnation of their behaviour from across the political spectrum.

It was reported that when the Cabinet met on Tuesday there was discussion of the incident where 10 or so anti austerity protesters stood outside the house holding banners, one with the message #Bringittotheirdoors. 

It’s hardly a surprise that some of Mr Harris’colleagues would fear similar incidents, no doubt already rattled by reports of a threat by anti eviction protesters to forcefully remove female cabinet ministers and their families from their homes. 

This online threat has since been investigated by gardaí and it is good to know that a senior level examination into general ministerial security is currently being undertaken by An Garda Síochána.

A Google search will throw up a few reminders of nasty incidents involving politicians in recent years, and how close to dangerous certain incidents had skirted. 

There is a clip from 2015 of former taoiseach Brian Cowen walking to his car, alone, in Dublin city centre. 

A camera shows him from behind, and as it gets menacingly closer to the back of his head you realise there is a small group of protesters surrounding him as he gets to his car, parked on a street. 

Presumably it is those same people who have already put cardboard with slogans on his windscreen and also, somewhat bizarrely, tied balloons to the door handles. 

They blow a whistle into his ear and shout vile abuse at him including “traitor”.

Of course there is a political context here. 

Many people justifiably believe that Fianna Fáil had a major role to play in our economic crash but nothing excuses this sort of thuggish, threatening behaviour. 

Incredibly the former taoiseach remained calm, at least outwardly, I say incredibly because it must have been a terrifying experience. He resolutely removed the cardboard and then the balloons and then got into his car. 

In hindsight, looking at this, it borders on criminal endangerment to have left Brian Cowen without the protection of at least a garda driver during those years when there was so much anger against him.

Two years prior to that former taoiseach Bertie Ahern was assaulted in a pub in Dublin city centre. 

Although not seriously injured he was hit on the head with a crutch wielded by a man who was said to have been extremely drunk. 

For these two men, both former Taoisigh of our country, these are just two ugly incidents that we are aware of, and there must have been far more than those.

Also in 2013 former Labour minister Pat Rabbitte came under siege by protesters who had been at the Dáil but after getting a tip-off went up to a nearby pub where he was standing outside with a few people having a drink. 

It got so intense they moved inside but he was followed.

The video of that shows a horrible incident where he is sitting in the pub, portraying a calm exterior, and looking at his phone, while other people formed a line of protection around him. 

Yet again you can hear the word “traitor” being spat at him, as well as “scumbag”, as well as “Rabbitte, Rabbitte, Rabbitte, run, run,run”. 

The former minister remembers the incident and the nastiness of it well, and how they came into the pub with a megaphone and “created bloody mayhem”.

“There were two young fellas there, physically very fit, and they told me ‘just hold tight’. As it turns out while I was downstairs with this happening Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin were upstairs in the same pub with the troika having just signed off on the latest assessment of our homework so those two guys were Garda Special Branch. 

"Austerity might have lifted now but that coarseness that developed during that time is still there. They haven’t gone away.”

He does point out that even if he’d had a Garda driver then it mightn’t have made any difference given the particular circumstances.

As tánaiste at the time of the Jobstown protest Joan Burton did have a garda driver, but given the number and the ferocity of that protest, far more assistance was required. 

She recalls being the subject of several other protests with people saying things like “we know where you live” and has in fact, over the years, had a number of protests at her home.

“Significant numbers of people, like with Jobstown, do seem to want to protest in a far more visceral way. It was a terrifying experience and I think it happened as it did because there were two women involved.”

She believes politicians, especially those who are promoted, should be given security advice. 

“Irish politics is very open and 99% of people are very friendly and I think our democracy would be diminished to do away with that.”

Since 2011 the Taoiseach and Tánaiste are the only Ministers to have State cars and Garda drivers. 

Ministers now provide their own cars and are paid travelling expenses. They hire two civilian drivers paid by the State. 

In 2017 the State car and Garda driver for the Taoiseach cost €200,698 and €278,000 for the Tánaiste’s. The total bill for all State cars that year, including the President, was more than €1m.

You wouldn’t dismiss these charges as inconsequential and clearly there would be a major hike in cost if all Cabinet members were to have these arrangements reinstated. 

Nor is it to anyone’s benefit to create an over securitised scenario. 

However there is a time to be prudent and this is one of those. Simply by announcing the reintroduction of these security arrangements our senior politicians would be sending out a necessary signal to those who might consider them fair game.

It was interesting to read something Fine Gael senator Catherine Noone said a while ago in the Seanad about the 2011 decision on minister’s cars and drivers. 

“We get no gratitude for that kind of thing,” she observed, adding that she thought politicians may have degraded themselves over the years.

“We have made populist moves to try to endear ourselves to a public that has no interest in many of the moves in question.”

It’s difficult to disagree with her.

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