A long-serving prison officer was murdered in a motorway ambush by dissident republicans in Northern Ireland today.
David Black, from Cookstown, Co Tyrone, had more than 30 years’ service in the Prison Service and was approaching retirement.
He was ambushed by a gunman on Northern Ireland’s M1 motorway early this morning as he drove to begin duty at the top security Maghaberry jail near Lisburn, Co Antrim.
Politicians on all sides condemned the murder and, even though no organisation has admitted responsibility, security chiefs believe republicans opposed to the peace process were involved.
The extremists have been involved in long-running protests against jail conditions inside Maghaberry.
Police Service of Northern Ireland Chief Constable Matt Baggott said: ``It was a completely senseless attack. It demonstrated the recklessness and ruthlessness and sheer dangerousness of those who oppose peace and are dedicated to taking us back to those dark days of the past.
“This has all the hallmarks of dissident republicans. This was just a brutal attack and we need the public’s support to be able to solve it as quickly as possible.
“David was dedicated, a person keeping people safe, and we need to respect that and recognise that.”
Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris said the gunman was in a Toyota Camry with a Dublin registration which drew alongside Mr Black’s black Audi.
“From that car it appears that shots were fired at Mr Black,” he said.
“Almost immediately his car veered off the motorway and into a pretty deep drainage ditch.
“Mr Black appears to have sustained very serious and probably fatal gunshot wounds.”
Mr Harris added: “The motive behind this is sheer terror.”
Mr Black had expressed interest in an early retirement scheme but his departure date had not been set, Prison Service director general Sue McAllister said.
Mrs McAllister said the Prison Service would not be bowed.
“We will not allow this to derail the efforts that we are making to reform the service but we will do everything we can to support all of our staff in the very difficult days ahead,” she added.
The chief constable said police had been working closely with the Prison Service over recent weeks and years to make sure staff get the best advice and would be having more conversations following today’s attack.
Mr Harris added: “We have been aware that dissident republican groups have been targeting prison officers, they have been a subject of targeting and conspiracy to murder by dissident republican groups.”
A car used in the attack was later found burnt-out in Lurgan, Co Armagh, where supporters of dissidents have backed the jail protest campaign.
Mr Black, who was married with a family, was the 30th prison officer killed in Northern Ireland since 1974.
It is understood his service stretched back as far as the 1981 IRA hunger strike inside the Maze prison, when 10 republicans starved themselves to death.
Finlay Spratt, the head of the Prison Officers’ Association, knew Mr Black.
“I found him to be a very nice fellow to work with,” he said.
“He always ensured he did his job to the letter. He was a very good officer, he certainly did his bit.”
Mr Spratt criticised the security provisions offered to prison officers since the Troubles ended.
“They have stripped away all the security around prison officers,” he said. “They treat us now as if we live in normal society.”
Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness condemned the murder.
“At this time, our thoughts and prayers are with the bereaved family and we condemn this murder in the strongest possible terms,” they said in a joint statement.
“There can be no justification for this brutal attack as this man was going about his daily life. People who work for the Prison Service play a crucial role in our community and any attack on them is an attack on all of us.
“Actions like this have no place in society and those who carried out this murder have nothing positive to contribute, and we refuse to let the people behind this attack divert us from building a better and peaceful future for everyone.
“We appeal to anyone with any information on this murder to contact the PSNI.”
The shooting happened at around 7.30am, at the same time as a major security alert further along the motorway at a shopping centre at Sprucefield, near Lisburn, where bomb disposal experts were called in to check a car.
It is believed this vehicle might have been linked to the shooting, according to some sources.
The dissident protests in Maghaberry have taken place at a time when the NI Prison Service is undergoing a turbulent programme of reform.
Today’s incident represents a major blow for recently appointed director general Ms McAllister, 51, from South Yorkshire, who took over the reins in the summer.
Yesterday Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers warned that the threat from dissident republicans in Northern Ireland remained severe.
That came a week after the threat of attack in Great Britain was downgraded to moderate.
The Republic of Ireland’s Justice Minister Alan Shatter added his words of condemnation.
“I condemn utterly the brutal and barbaric murder of a member of the Northern Ireland Prison Service this morning,” he said.
“I have spoken this morning to the Northern Ireland Minister for Justice, David Ford, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers.
“On my own behalf and on behalf of the Government I expressed our deep sympathy to the family, friends and colleagues of the murdered prison officer.
“We acknowledged the very close co-operation which exists between (Irish police) An Garda Siochana and the Police Service of Northern Ireland and will fully support their efforts in bringing the perpetrators of this dreadful crime to justice and dealing with the threat posed by anyone behaving in this barbaric fashion.”
Stormont Justice Minister David Ford said: ``This is a horrific murder, for which there can be no justification and will be rightly condemned by all across Northern Ireland.
“At its very core this is a human tragedy. A man has lost his life this morning and a family are grieving the loss of their loved one. My thoughts are also with the wider Prison Service family.”
Mrs Villiers branded the attack cowardly and evil.
“The thoughts and deepest sympathy of us all are with the family, friends and colleagues of the murdered prison officer,” she said.
“Like his colleagues across the prison service, he was dedicated to serving the whole community in Northern Ireland. This is in stark contrast to the people responsible for this despicable crime.
“The British and Irish Governments, the Executive, the PSNI and Garda – and above all the people of Northern Ireland – will continue to work together to ensure that those who pursue their aims by violence will not succeed.”
Mr Robinson later added to his own statement of condemnation.
“The thugs who plunged his family into despair, they are flat-earth fanatics living in the dark ages, spewing out hatred from every pore,” he said.
Mr McGuinness said the community was united in opposition to violence.
“The people who carried out the attack proved that they could kill a human being, albeit a human being who happened to be a prison officer,” said the Sinn Fein representative.
“What they cannot kill is the peace process and we are the proof of that.
“Our community stands absolutely four-square and united against the activities of these groups.”
Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, passed on the condolences of the Dublin Government.
“I condemn in the strongest possible terms the brutal murder of a prison officer in his car in Northern Ireland this morning,” he said.
“I convey my sympathies and that of the Irish Government to his grieving family.
“I know that I speak for every decent man, woman and child on this island, north and south, in expressing revulsion at this act.”
He added: “There will be no return to the dark and violent days of the past. The tragic loss of life that we have seen this morning serves only to bring us together in a shared grief and a shared determination to work together in building a better future for all.”
Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt expressed his condolences to Mr Black’s family.
“This is a tragedy for this man’s family,” he said.
“We offer our sincere condolences to them and hope that they gain strength to see them through the coming days.
“Those who have carried out this attack on an innocent man represent the past and have nothing to offer the men, women and children of this country who have long since rejected terrorism.”
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said there was no room for violence – dissident or otherwise – in Ireland.
“Mr Black’s murder marks out the very worst and darkest side of human nature - a side which civilised people banish from their hearts and their societies,” he said.
“The slaughter of a man who left his family in the full expectation of seeing them again that night is a disgrace to democracy and a true human tragedy.
“The people of Ireland rejected violence long ago and they will continue to reject it today.”