The killing by republican dissidents of the first prison officer murdered in Northern Ireland in almost 20 years today generated waves of shock and condemnation.
The prison officer, David Black, 52, was shot by gunmen who pulled up alongside his car as he drove to Maghaberry prison near Belfast on the M1, Northern Ireland’s principal motorway, around 7.30 am.
He suffered serious and probably fatal wounds before his car drove into a deep ditch. Although no group claimed responsibility a car believed to have been used was found burnt-out at Lurgan, the Co Armagh town where a number of dissident terrorist groups are based.
The shock waves were felt because the last prison officer murdered died in 1993. Although dissident groups are regarded as a general menace to the security forces and related personnel, they have in recent years concentrated on attacking police officers.
The killing will mean an urgent review of security surrounding prison officers which was gradually relaxed in the absence of attacks.
It was learned today that a number of police and prison officers had recently been advised to move house after reports that they had been targeted by dissidents. But no specific intelligence linked to Mr Black had emerged.
Finlay Spratt, chairman of the Prison Officers Association, criticised the authorities for prematurely reducing security measures. He said: “They have stripped away all the security around prison officers. They treat us now as if we live in normal society.”
Chief Constable Matt Baggott said police had been working closely with the prison service to make sure staff had the best security advice, and would be having more conversations following the attack.
A police spokesman added: “Mr Black appears to have sustained very serious and probably fatal gunshot wounds. The motive behind this is sheer terror.”
Mr Black was a father of two who had been in the prison service for more than 30 years. A stalwart of his Presbyterian church in the Co Tyrone town of Cookstown, he had been considering early retirement.
Presbyterian minister Rev Tom Greer described his family as absolutely devastated and in a state of shock. He said that while they had been aware of a remaining threat from dissident terrorists, “they believed this kind of thing was something we had left behind us, and that the days of murder were something of the past.”
Dissident inmates at Maghaberry have for years been involved in a long-running dispute centring on their objections to being strip-searched. The killing is therefore regarded as partly related to this campaign as well as to their general desire to keep conflict going.
Last month Home Secretary Theresa May announced that MI5 had downgraded the threat to Britain from Irish terrorism from substantial to moderate but she warned that the threat within Northern Ireland continued to be rated as severe.
Leading the condemnation today, David Cameron said his heart went out to the family and friends of Mr Black, adding: “These killers will not succeed in denying the people of Northern Ireland the peaceful, shared future they so desperately want.”
Belfast First Minister Peter Robinson described the gunmen as “flat-earth fanatics living in the dark ages, spewing out hatred from every pore”.
His deputy Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein added: “There can be no justification for this brutal attack.”
Strip-search procedures at jail led to dirty protests
Dissident republicans held in Maghaberry prison, where the murdered officer worked, have for several years protested about strip-search procedures at the jail.
Around 30 of the 41 dissidents in the prison have taken part in protests which include throwing urine and faeces outside their cells and refusing to wash or shave.
This has meant that prison officers routinely wear forensic suits and face-masks, using heavy-duty disinfectant to clean wings. The refusal to shave has meant that prisoners often appear in court with long beards.
A number of negotiations have taken place between the authorities and prisoners who complained that strip-searching is used too frequently and in a humiliating manner.
On at least one occasion it appeared the dispute had been resolved but protests were resumed, with cells systematically wrecked, as inmates claimed the authorities had not kept to agreements. The dispute has not succeeded in generating public sympathy for inmates.