Car blast hits police gaelic football captain

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The captain of the Police Service of Northern Ireland's gaelic football team was fighting for his life tonight after he was critically injured by a booby trap bomb.

Peadar Heffron, 33, had just left his home outside Randalstown, County Antrim to start duty in west Belfast when the device exploded under his blue Alfa Romeo car. Dissident republicans were blamed.

Constable Heffron, a Catholic who spoke Irish, was married last year.

His cousin Martin Totten, who met him with his new wife Fiona out shopping in a Tesco supermarket in Antrim just days ago said tonight: "This is terrifying. I just hope we're not slipping back into the dark old days. Everybody thought his was all behind us."

Shocked neighbours rushed to help the injured officer whose car careered side-ways on the slippery Milltown Road around 6.30am, half a mile from where he lived. He was then taken to hospital for emergency treatment before being transferred to the Royal Victoria in Belfast.

Up to a dozen police cars escorted the ambulance as it drove along the M2 motorway into the city.

The constable was blown up two miles from Massereene army barracks, Antrim, where two soldiers just about to leave for Afghanistan were shot dead by the Real IRA last March. Sappers Mark Quinsey, 23 and Patrick Azimkar, 21, were gunned down as they accepted a pizza delivery outside the gates of the base.

The Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson, the deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and the Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen, as well as other politicians and church leaders on all sides condemned the bombing.

It is the latest in a series of attacks by dissidents and virtually identical to one close to the PSNI headquarters in Belfast where an officer's girlfriend just missed death last October.

Last year Constable Heffron, who has served with the police for nine years, was among officers who attended the first meeting where discussions in Londonderry between Policing Board officials and members of the public were conducted in the Irish language.

He also played a key role in establishing the PSNI's gaelic football team and was this season's captain.

He once played for Kickhams Creggan, a Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) club based in Randalstown where Mr Totten, the club secretary, spoke of his shock at the attack on a close relative.

He said: "I really thought we were past this. I thought with the Good Friday Agreement and all the political progress that these sort of actions had ended and that policing was no longer considered by the Catholic fraternity as a problem area. Catholic members of the police service should be accepted."

Antrim County Board chairman Dr John McSparran said he was deeply shocked. He added: "I thought we had moved into a new era. Clearly there are elements out there determined to pick soft targets. There are a small group of individuals refusing to accept the wishes of the majority."

The attack was another deliberate attempt to frighten Catholics from joining the PSNI and embarrass Sinn Fein who hours later called off a meeting of its ruling executive in Dublin tomorrow because of the snow and ice.

The leadership had been due to discuss the delay in the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast - a hold-up which is threatening the future of the power sharing executive in Belfast.

Detective Chief Superintendent Derek Williamson who is heading up the police investigation urged people in the area to come forward if they noticed anything suspicious. He branded the attackers faceless cowardly thugs.

He added: "They skulked under the cover of darkness to try and kill or injure this officer."

In an operation unconnected to the inquiry, but as part of the security offensive against dissidents in the Irish Republic, three men aged, 38, 39 and 44, were detained by Gardai at a house in Belturbet, Co. Cavan. A gun was also found.

Mr Robinson, the beleaguered First Minister took time out from his personal family crisis to say: "This is a cowardly, evil act against a man committed to defending the free society we all enjoy.

"Those who perpetrate such attacks will not succeed in returning Northern Ireland to the dark days of the past. I remain steadfastly committed to upholding that promise. There is only one path forward - that of peace and democracy."

Mr McGuinness said the victim had contributed positively to the community.

"The people who carried out this attack make no contribution. These actions serve no purpose and will not further any cause," he said.

Mr Cowen said it was an act of senseless violence

He added: "The people of Ireland have clearly demonstrated their wish for peace and to work through the democratic process. This criminal action by a tiny minority is an attack on all of the people of this country."