The prison officers' union condemns the killing of an officer shot at as he drove to work in a violent episode some fear may be a return to sectarian violence.

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David Black, an officer at a top-security prison, was targeted by a gunman as he drove to work on the M1 motorway, the 30th prison officer killed in Northern Ireland since 1974.

He was driving a stretch of the M1 between Portadown and Lurgan, Co Armagh, when he was fired on and his car careered off the road. The gunman is believed to have pulled up beside him. Emergency services found the man dead inside his car, Irish broadcaster RTE News said. It was not immediately clear if Mr Black, a father of two from Cookstown, died from the gunshot wounds or the crash.

Prime Minister David Cameron condemned what he described as the "brutal murder" of Mr Black.

"This is an outrageous and cowardly attack, the senseless murder of a prison officer doing his duty," Finlay Spratt, head of the Prison Officers' Association of Northern Ireland, told Channel 4 News.

"The government relies on the peace process that prison officers won't be killed, but we've seen that's not the case," he said.

Speaking at a press conference the Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers assured the public that the Police Service of Northern Ireland and their partners "were very focused on doing all they can to protect prison officers."

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore condemned the shooting and said there would be "no return to the dark and violent days of the past," RTE reported.

Burnt-out car may be linked

Prison officers have been under "immense pressure" due to budget cuts and voluntary redundancies. As a result, security controls and personal security equipment have been downgraded, Mr Spratt said. There have been a decrease in measures such as moving prison officers thought to be under threat to safe houses. Automatic bullet and bomb-proofing of houses no longer happens.

"We all thought we were living in more normal times," Mr Spratt said.

Police are investigating a possible link with a burnt-out car found later (photo below, credit: Citybeat radio). The car was found in Inglewood in Lurgan with an Irish registered plate, Citybeat said. Dissident republicans have considerable support in Lurgan.

Paul Girvan, a Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, said the man was on his way to begin duty at the top-security Maghaberry Prison, near Lisburn, Co Antrim, where

The prison officer was believed to have taken a redundancy package and was due to retire after about 30 years in the prison service. He has not yet been officially named.

Paul Girvan, a Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, said the man was on his way to begin duty at the top-security Maghaberry Prison, near Lisburn, Co Antrim, where dissident republicans have been involved in long-running protests against jail conditions.

The dark days

"This is a terrible tragedy. Once again, a small minority are trying to drag us back to the dark days," Jeffrey Donaldson, MP for Lagan Valley, said.

News

The shooting happened at around 7:30am, the Police Service of Northern Ireland said. At the same time, there was a major security alert further along the motorway at a shopping centre.

Dissident threat

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers warned on Wednesday that the threat from dissident republicans in Northern Ireland remained severe.

Sinn Fein Assembly member John O'Dowd said there was "no justification for continued conflict in this society."

"We, as a society, have decided we want to move beyond them. The road they are on is not going to achieve anything," Mr O'Dowd.

The Northern Ireland Prison Service is undergoing a turbulent time of reform. Today's incident was a major blow for recently-appointed Director General Sue McAllister, 51, from South Yorkshire, who took over the organisation in the summer, The Belfast Telegraph said.

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