A PRISON officer with more than 30 years' service was murdered by dissident republicans in Northern Ireland today.
David Black was ambushed by a gunman on the M1 motorway as he drove to begin duty at the top security Maghaberry jail near Lisburn, Co Antrim.
Politicians on all sides condemned the murder and even though no organisation has admitted responsibility, security chiefs believe republicans opposed to the peace process were involved.
David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, offered his condolences to the friends and family of Mr Black, who died when his car was ambushed by dissidents.
"First and foremost, this is a dreadful tragedy for the family and friends of David Black, who has been so brutally murdered as he went about his work keeping the people of Northern Ireland safe. My heart goes out to them," Mr Cameron said.
"The Government I lead will do whatever we can to help the PSNI bring the perpetrators to justice.
"These killers will not succeed in denying the people of Northern Ireland the peaceful, shared future they so desperately want."
Justice Minister Alan Shatter said the murder was “brutal and barbaric” and vowed to support the Police Service in Northern Ireland in catching the murderers.
The Justice Minister added that he spoke to the Northern Ireland Minister for Justice, David Ford and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers.
He offered the Government’s sympathy to the family, friend and colleagues of the murdered prison officer, who was from Cookstown in Tyrone.
“We acknowledged the very close cooperation which exists between An Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland and will fully support their efforts in bringing the perpetrators of this dreadful crime to justice and dealing with the threat posed by anyone behaving in this barbaric fashion,” he said.
The extremists have been involved in long-running protests against jail conditions inside Maghaberry.
A car understood to have been used in the attack was later found burned out in Lurgan, Co Armagh, where supporters of dissidents have backed the jail protest campaign.
The man is the 30th prison officer killed in Northern Ireland since 1974, but the first murder victim in almost 20 years.
It is understood his service stretched back as far as the 1981 IRA hunger strike inside the Maze prison when 10 republicans starved themselves to death.
Finlay Spratt, the head of the Prison Officers' Association, knew the dead officer.
"I found him to be a very nice fellow to work with," he said.
"He always ensured he did his job to the letter. He was a very good officer, he certainly did his bit."
Mr Spratt criticised the security provisions offered to prison officers since the Troubles ended.
"They have stripped away all the security around prison officers," he said.
"They treat us now as if we live in normal society."
The attack took place on the M1 between Portadown and Lurgan, Co Armagh.
One unconfirmed report claimed a gunman opened fire when another car pulled up alongside the officer's vehicle.
It is understood the car careered off the road when the officer was fired on and he died later.
Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness condemned the murder.
"At this time, our thoughts and prayers are with the bereaved family and we condemn this murder in the strongest possible terms," they said in a joint statement.
"There can be no justification for this brutal attack as this man was going about his daily life. People who work for the Prison Service play a crucial role in our community and any attack on them is an attack on all of us.
"Actions like this have no place in society and those who carried out this murder have nothing positive to contribute, and we refuse to let the people behind this attack divert us from building a better and peaceful future for everyone.
"We appeal to anyone with any information on this murder to contact the PSNI."
Stormont Justice Minister David Ford said: "I want to express my deepest sympathy to the family and colleagues of the murdered prison officer.
"This is a horrific murder, for which there can be no justification, and will be rightly condemned by all across Northern Ireland.
"At its very core this is a human tragedy. A man has lost his life this morning and a family are grieving the loss of their loved one. My thoughts are also with the wider Prison Service family."
The shooting happened at around 7.30am, at the same time as a major security alert further along the motorway at a shopping centre at Sprucefield, near Lisburn, where bomb disposal experts were called in to check a car.
It is believed this vehicle might have been linked in some way to the shooting, according to some sources.
The dissident protests in Maghaberry have taken place at a time when the NI Prison Service is undergoing a turbulent programme of reform.
Today's incident represents a major blow for recently-appointed director general Sue McAllister, 51, from South Yorkshire, who took over the reins of the organisation in the summer.