Policing Board vice chairman Denis Bradley could have been killed by a thug who bludgeoned him with a baseball bat, police claimed tonight.
Mr Bradley, 59, was attacked in a Derry bar as he watched a televised football match with his teenage son.
The former priest suffered head injuries and is being detained in Altnagelvin Hospital overnight for observation.
Dissident Republicans have been blamed for the beating as they have petrol bombed Mr Bradley’s home and threatened him in the past.
But the latest attack was the most vicious yet and the detective leading the inquiry warned it could have had fatal consequences.
Chief Superintendent Richard Russell said: “If you attack people in that way, hitting them on the head with implements of that kind, then they can be killed. There is no doubt about it.”
The Secretary of State and politicians on both sides of the Irish border condemned the attack but forecast it would not deter Mr Bradley from driving forward policing reforms in the province.
The vice chairman was targeted as he prepared to watch the second half of the Eircom League Cup final between Derry City and UCD.
It is understood police have taken witness statements from 16 individuals who were in the ground floor bar around 8.30pm yesterday when Mr Bradley was attacked.
The bar does not have CCTV cameras and footage from a neighbouring off-licence has been of no use to the inquiry.
Chief Supt Russell said: “The man walked into the bar, approached Denis and hit him with something similar to a baseball bat.
“Denis was knocked down but we are not sure how many times he was struck.
“He suffered two lacerations to his head and a suspected broken nose.
“It was a vicious and brutal attack and really has to be condemned.”
Chief Supt Russell said the suspect was wearing a light coloured hooded top and had a scarf around his face.
He added: “We don’t think this is a random attack but it may have been an opportunistic attack.
“One of the major lines of inquiry is in relation to dissident Republicans who have previously threatened Denis Bradley.”
Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain condemned the vicious attack.
He said he had contacted Mr Bradley’s wife Mary by telephone to express his sympathy.
“I told her we all stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Denis in his refusal to be cowed by thuggery and violence, which must be rooted out and dealt with wherever it comes from.”
Security Minister Shaun Woodward also condemned those responsible.
He said: “His work as Deputy Chairman of the Policing Board is outstanding and the attack is especially repugnant on a man who devotes his life to serving all the community.”
Policing Board Chairman Professor Sir Desmond Rea said the attack was despicable but forecast Mr Bradley will remain committed to his work on the Board.
He said: “I am sure that I speak on behalf of every member of the board and its staff in roundly condemning this totally unwarranted attack.”
SDLP leader Mark Durkan said: “Unlike his attackers, Denis Bradley argues his views openly, takes other opinions too and can justify his stance and his actions.
“Attacking a man like this in this way proves the weak cowardice of its perpetrators.”
The Foyle MP added: “The strongest possible response to Denis Bradley’s attackers would be not just to condemn it, but to underpin the new beginning to policing for which he and others have worked so strongly, and for which he and others have been attacked.”
Sinn Féin Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness said: “The attack on Denis Bradley was wrong and unacceptable and must be condemned.
“The fact that he is the vice-chairperson of the Policing Board does not warrant an attack on either him or his family.
The Ulster Unionist Party issued a joint statement on behalf of its Policing Board members, Fred Cobain, Alan McFarland, Lord Kilclooney and Sam Foster.
It read: “We strongly condemn this brutal and unjustifiable attack on our colleague on the Policing Board who was merely enjoying a quiet drink with his son in a bar when the attack happened.
“The police have confirmed the main suspects so far are dissident Republicans.
“However, this is not the first time that they have targeted members of the Policing Board.”
Politicians in the Irish Republic also praised Mr Bradley’s courage, despite the intimidation he has experience in the past.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern said: “Denis Bradley is recognised across the community as a true Irish patriot who has worked tirelessly to achieve reconciliation on this island and whose personal courage and integrity has been an example to all.
“Denis Bradley’s role in opening up a new era for policing in Northern Ireland has been one of the outstanding achievements of the peace process.”
Irish Labour Party leader Liz McManus said: “Denis Bradley stands for the humane type of new society all true democrats are attempting to create: one that is law-abiding and committed to reconciliation.
“His attackers, on the other hand, are anathema to this.”