POSTED: 2:45 a.m. HST, Nov 1, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 4:03 a.m. HST, Nov 1, 2012
DUBLIN >> A veteran Northern Ireland prison officer was killed today in a gun ambush as he was driving to work, the first slaying of a security-force member in the British territory in 18 months.
Police said they weren't certain yet whether the victim was killed by gunfire or after his car crashed into fencing on the M1 motorway southwest of Belfast. They said the victim's car was hit by several bullets.
Police found the attackers' suspected getaway car burned out in the nearby town of Lurgan, a power base for two Irish Republican Army factions opposed to Northern Ireland's peace process, the Real IRA and Continuity IRA.
No group claimed responsibility. Politicians said IRA die-hards were almost certainly to blame.
"This dastardly murder highlights that the battle against terrorism and the fight for peace and democracy continues in Northern Ireland," said Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the major British Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists.
And Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party that persuaded the Provisional IRA to renounce violence and disarm in 2005, said the IRA splinter group believed responsible offered no political path forward.
"There is no justification for continued conflict in this society," said Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd, education minister in the unity government that has run Northern Ireland since 2007.
Authorities declined to identify the victim by name pending notification of his family. The Northern Ireland Prison Service said he had been a prison guard for nearly 30 years and was due to retire soon.
The victim worked at Maghaberry Prison, where dozens of IRA inmates have been waging protests for more than a year, including smearing their cells with their own excrement.
Most attacks by today's IRA factions fail, either because of British intelligence tipoffs or faulty equipment. Much of their violence is aimed at criminal rivals within their working-class Irish Catholic host communities.
The last Northern Ireland security-force member killed was in April 2011, when a 25-year-old Catholic recruit to the police force was blown up by an under-car booby-trap bomb outside his home. The IRA factions particularly seek to deter Catholic recruitment into the once Protestant-dominated police force, a major peacemaking goal.
Thursday's victim would be the 30th prison officer to die as part of Northern Ireland four-decade conflict. Most were killed by the Provisional IRA, but the previous killing in 1993 was committed by a militant Protestant group, the Ulster Volunteer Force.