Belfast City Hall security lags well behind rest of UK and must be upgraded urgently, expert warns
Counter-terrorism measures to protect the public at Belfast's Christmas Market lag far behind those at similar events across Britain, a security expert has warned.
Andrew McQuillan accused the authorities of failing to do as much as they should to protect the public and called on the council to urgently make improvements.
He was speaking after the Belfast Telegraph yesterday revealed details of a counter-terrorist assessment showing City Hall was extremely vulnerable to a car bomb or lone wolf attack involving knives or other weapons.
The National Counter-Terrorism Security Office (NaCTSO) identified the Christmas Market, which runs until December 23, as a "specific vulnerability".
The report will be discussed by the council's strategic policy and resources committee today before it is debated at a full council meeting on December 4.
Mr McQuillan said: "I have worked on security at events across the UK, Europe and the US.
"The measures adopted in Northern Ireland just aren't as good as those elsewhere, which is surprising given the significant paramilitary threat we faced in the recent past.
"Security at the Winter Wonderland event in London is phenomenal and that at the Christmas markets in Birmingham and Manchester is also very high.
"The measures in place at Belfast City Hall's market lag seriously behind and this must be urgently addressed.
"We should not bury our heads in the sand. There are steps which can be taken immediately to improve the situation."
The council has installed large planters on the pavement outside City Hall "to provide some protection in case of a vehicle-born attack". But Mr McQuillan said that while the measure was welcome it wasn't nearly enough.
He suggested that protection could be enhanced if interlocking red-and-white security barriers were placed around City Hall. He added: "These have been placed at bridges in London before permanent barriers go up.
"They are filled with water and sand and are very cheap to erect.
"NaCTSO is a highly respected organisation. They have highlighted weaknesses and Belfast City Council really should move swiftly to implement their recommendations."
Mr McQuillan, who owns Crowded Space Drones and whose father Alan was a former PSNI Assistant Chief Constable, said there was a dangerous complacency in Northern Ireland about the dangers of an attack at a public venue.
He added: "Just because we had republican and loyalist violence in the past doesn't exempt us from international terrorism. Some claim on social media that reporting the threat here is scaremongering.
"These people have no awareness whatsoever of public safety at events. A report from the National Counter-Terrorism Security Office is not scaremongering. It has to be taken seriously."
Mr McQuillan also claimed it was wrongly argued that increased security would mean Northern Ireland was returning to the past.
He said: "What these people ignore is that armed police at Christmas markets in England is very normal and England usually has an unarmed police force.
"We are dealing with a new emerging threat. Not updating and changing your plans is just not smart. It is waving a red flag at a bull.
"People can choose to inhabit a bubble but it doesn't reflect the world we live in. No risks should be taken with major events."
Mr McQuillan said the council could apply to have the national barrier asset system deployed - temporary high-grade security fencing which protects high-profile locations or events.
He added: "I feel sorry for the council as the market's location at City Hall isn't the easiest to protect. We really need to talk about the issue. Ignoring it doesn't make our vulnerability go away.
"Making security at your event look visibly as hard as possible is a great deterrent for terrorists who are hunting vulnerable targets".