Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson has branded the killers of a long-serving prison officer in the North today "flat-earth fanatics living in the dark ages".
Married father-of-two David Black, 52, was gunned down by dissident republicans in a motorway ambush in Co Armagh today.
He was shot several times from a car that pulled up alongside his on the M1 near Lurgan as he drove to work at Maghaberry jail this morning.
Colleagues have said Mr Black, from Cookstown, Co Tyrone, had been actively considering retirement after more than 30 years’ service.
Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson branded the culprits “flat-earth fanatics living in the dark ages, spewing out hatred from every pore”.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny, said the murder was “deeply disturbing”.
“I utterly condemn the actions of those who carried it out and their scant regard for human life,” he said while on an official visit to Berlin.
“I wish to extend my deepest sympathy and those of the Irish people to the family of the victim and to his colleagues.”
Mr Kenny added: “Those who committed this brutal act will rightly be condemned by all civilised and right-thinking people on this island who utterly reject such hideous and mindless violence.”
Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, passed on the condolences of the Government.
“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 said.
“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.”
President Michael D Higgins also expressed revulsion.
Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan, said: “I think the shocking and appalling events, with the outrageous and appalling murder of Prison Officer Black, clearly demonstrates there are people within the island of both sides that do not conform or subscribe to the democratic process.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron joined political leaders on both sides of the Irish border in condemning what he said was a “brutal murder”.
He said: “These killers will not succeed in denying the people of Northern Ireland the peaceful, shared future they so desperately want.”
After being shot, Mr Black’s black Audi A4 veered off the road and crashed into a deep drainage ditch.
Police have blamed dissident republicans opposed to the peace process.
The violent extremists have been engaged in a long running protest campaign against conditions inside HMP Maghaberry in Co Antrim – Northern Ireland’s only maximum security prison.
Stormont Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness insisted the murder would not destabilise the peace process.
“Our community stands absolutely four-square and united against the activities of these groups,” he said.
Mr Black has become the 30th prison officer killed in the North since 1974, though the first for almost 20 years.
He was driving on the motorway between Portadown and Lurgan at around 7.30am when a dark blue Toyota Camry, with a Dublin registration, pulled alongside and several shots were fired.
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris said dissidents had been actively targeting prison officers.
He indicated the gunshots, not the crash, had been the cause of death, adding: “Mr Black appears to have sustained very serious and probably fatal gunshot wounds.
“The motive behind this is sheer terror.”
The Toyota believed to have been used in the attack – registration 94 D 50997 - was later found burnt-out in the Inglewood area of Lurgan, Co Armagh – a town with strong pockets of dissident support.
Mr Black’s 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 chairman of the Prison Officers’ Association representative body, knew the dead officer.
“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.”
PSNI 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,” he said.
“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.”
In the wake of the shooting, 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.”
Mr Baggott said police had been working closely with the Prison Service over recent weeks and years to make sure staff get the best security advice and would be having more conversations following the attack.
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Mr Black was a long-standing member of the Orange Order in Cookstown.
Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland Edward Stevenson said he was the 337th member of the organisation to be murdered by terrorists since 1969.
“His professionalism throughout the worst of the Troubles and beyond is in stark contrast to the cowardly and faceless terrorists who today have left a wife without her husband and two children without their father,” he said.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with David’s wife, Yvonne, his children, Kyle and Kyra, and wider family circle at this deeply traumatic time. They can be assured that the Orange fraternity will rally around them in their hour of need.”
The dissident protests in Maghaberry have taken place at a time when the Northern Ireland Prison Service is undergoing a turbulent programme of reform.
Prison Service director-general Sue McAllister said Mr Black had expressed interest in an early retirement scheme but his departure date had not been set.
Mrs McAllister said the officer’s colleagues would not be bowed by the attack.
“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 shooting happened at the same time as a major security alert further east along the motorway at a shopping centre om Sprucefield, near Lisburn, where bomb disposal experts were called in to check a car. Police are investigating whether the incidents are linked.
Despite a decrease in the number of dissident attacks in Northern Ireland this year, the threat level has remained at severe.
However, last week the official threat level in regard to the likelihood of a dissident act of violence in mainland UK was reduced to moderate.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers branded the attack on Mr Black “cowardly and evil”.
“Like his colleagues across the Prison Service, he was dedicated to serving the whole community in Northern Ireland,” she said.
“This is in stark contrast to the people responsible for this despicable crime.”
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.”
Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt and SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell also expressed outrage and condemnation.
Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor Noel Treanor said it was a “vicious and callous murder”.
“In the face of this heinous crime, let us all resolve to support the rule of law, to recognise the destructive evil of violence and to maintain our commitment to democracy rather than resorting to any form of violence,” he said.
“Our present and our future are not and cannot be built upon the pursuit of violence.”
Prison Ombudsman for Northern Ireland Pauline McCabe also expressed her condolences.
Northern Ireland Policing Board chairman Brian Rea said: “There can be no justification for this murder. As a community we have travelled too far to allow the progress made to be undermined by ruthless people. That is the overwhelming view of the majority.”