Belfast Telegraph

Armed forces surely best placed to handle security

By Mary Dejevsky

When a judge ruled that residents of Fred Wigg Tower in east London would have to put up and shut up over the siting of a missile battery on their roof, justifications included the resonant, almost archaic, 'Defence of the Realm'.

You can argue until kingdom come whether the Olympics should present a security threat of that order, but given the temptation for the aggrieved to seek spectaculars to rival 9/11, it does not seem unreasonable for any government to treat the Games as a potential target.

Which is why the Home Office announcement, two weeks before the opening ceremony, that 3,500 troops were to be drafted in to help with security came as - one hesitates to write the words - such a bombshell.

Where the missiles in east London have been ridiculed in some quarters as overkill, the belated discovery that a private security firm has failed to train sufficient staff looks an awful lot like underkill.

It was not the Government's decision that needed explaining so much as the inordinate trust invested in the private security company, G4S.

Home Secretary Theresa May's evasiveness on the matter of penalties was perhaps the most unsatisfactory of all her unsatisfactory answers.

In the end, though, this sorry episode might do this Government and its successors a favour. For the healthier response to the announcement that the Army is to be brought in to staff checkpoints is not 'how disgraceful, but 'what took them so long?'

To put it another way, as an Olympic sportsperson, or a spectator, would you rather have your ID and your bag checked by someone selected, trained and disciplined to the exacting standards of the military, or someone rushed through a mainly box-ticking exercise to save a commercial contract?

So why was a private security company preferred to the military when the plans for London 2012 were drawn up?

One reason might be that the military had more pressing things to do, such as keeping the peace in Sierra Leone and preparing the exit from Iraq and fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

That is one way of looking at it. But if our troops are so busy in foreign parts that they do not have the numbers to 'defend the realm', then something is very wrong.

But there may also be a more complicated reason. We have an endearing, and entirely positive, aversion to militarisation.

We like pageantry and parades, but not the serious stuff, such as sharpshooters (or missiles) on the roof. The Government was, therefore, concerned that the Olympics did not look like a military exercise.

But there was surely another reason, too, for hiring G4S: the fetish of the last government (and this one) with trying to slim the state by outsourcing anything that others are thought able to do.

That anything now includes all sorts of security functions. It includes building and staffing new prisons, transporting prisoners to and from court and apprehending and removing illegal migrants.

The creation of the UK Border Agency to staff and enforce frontier controls - the title placing it at arm's length from the Government - was part of the same trend.

Yet there are some functions that are absolutely crucial to the state and ensuring security, whether of citizens, or the frontier, or the once-in-a lifetime Olympics - is surely one of them. And, if this is not a role for the armed forces, you have to ask what is.

As announced two weeks ago, the armed forces face severe cuts, in staffing as well as spending. Given the inability of G4S to fulfil its Olympic contract, and the proven inadequacy of the UK Border Agency to control the frontiers, might not a solution be to reorientate the military towards the home front?

National security is a prime function of the state and in this day and age it takes many forms. A smart, modern, uniformed force, trained to handle state-of-the-art weapons when required, but also to scan passports, track down illegal migrants and - in this instance - check bags at Olympic Park, would be the acceptable and trusted face of national security.

With the fad for privatisation and our misguided foreign adventures, this is something we have not had for a very long time.

Unintentionally, but beyond doubt, G4S has shown where private security stops and the responsibility of the state has to start.

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