Northern Ireland prison guard slain in gun ambush
DUBLIN (AP) -- A veteran Northern Ireland prison officer was killed Thursday 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 a gunman in a passing car shot David Black, 52, as he drove onto the M1 motorway southwest of Belfast. His car plummeted down a grassy embankment into a ditch.
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. They said the car had Dublin license plates.
No group claimed responsibility. Politicians and police commanders said IRA die-hards were to blame, and the government of the neighboring Republic of Ireland pledged to help hunt down those responsible.
"I know that I speak for every decent man, woman and child on this island, north and south, in expressing revulsion at this act," said Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore.
Gilmore said police in both parts of Ireland would crack down anew on IRA extremists, many of whom live in the Irish Republic near the border. "There will be no return to the dark and violent days of the past," he said.
And Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party that persuaded the Provisional IRA to renounce violence and disarm in 2005, said today's IRA remnant offered no coherent path forward.
"It is patently obvious that the peace process will not be derailed by incidents like this. It hasn't in the past and it won't in the future," said Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd, education minister in the unity government that has run Northern Ireland since 2007. He said IRA splinter groups should recognize reality and "bring an end to these pointless actions."
The Northern Ireland Prison Service said Black had been a prison guard for about 30 years and was due to retire soon.
Finlay Spratt, chairman of the Northern Ireland Prison Officers Association, described Black as "a very nice fellow to work with. He always ensured he did his job to the letter. He was a very good officer."
But Spratt lambasted the weakening of security provisions for prison officers, who live in civilian areas and still face death threats from extremists on both sides of Northern Ireland's sectarian divide.
Spratt said the Northern Ireland and British governments "have stripped away all the security around prison officers. They treat us now as if we live in normal society," he said.
The victim worked at Maghaberry Prison, where more than 40 IRA inmates have been waging protests for more than a year, including smearing their cells with their own excrement. The prisoners want to receive "political" status, the same symbolic issue that spurred 10 Irish republican inmates to starve themselves to death in 1981, and also oppose the prison's policy of strip-searching inmates.
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 achievement of peacemaking.
But Catholic recruitment into the prison service has been less successful, a problem highlighted in a recent British government appeal for more applicants from Irish nationalist communities.
Black was the 30th prison officer to die as part of Northern Ireland's four-decade conflict. Most were killed by the Provisional IRA, but the previous killing in 1993 was committed by the Ulster Volunteer Force, a paramilitary group rooted in the British Protestant side of the community.