Three men have been arrested for attempted murder of an off-duty officer shot in Northern Ireland.
The officer, named as Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell, was shot multiple times in front of young people he had been coaching at a sports centre just before 8pm on Wednesday, in Omagh, Co Tyrone.
Police say the dissident republican group, the New IRA, is the “primary focus” of the force’s investigation.
The attack happened while DCI Caldwell was loading footballs into the boot of his car when the two men opened fire, according to Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan of Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI).
Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, ACC McEwan said the officer ran a short distance after the first shots were fired and that his attackers continued to fire as he fell to the floor.
“There were many other young people, children, awaiting pick-up by their parents. Those children ran for cover in sheer terror towards the centre,” ACC McEwan added.
He said DCI Caldwell’s young son was also present, adding: “The trauma inflicted on this young boy is just horrific and he will never forget seeing his dad shot multiple times.
“The gunmen fired from close range in the busy sports training area, which could also quite easily have killed or seriously injured children who were present at the time of the shooting.”
DCI Caldwell remains in a critical but stable condition in hospital, where he underwent surgery overnight.
He is a high-profile officer who has led a number of major investigations, including taking a leading role in the murder probe following the killing of Natalie McNally in Lurgan in December.
‘A valued and active member of his community’
Speaking about the shooting, Chief Constable of PSNI, Simon Byre, said: “Clearly as an organisation, we are utterly shocked and angered by last night’s brazen and calculated attack.
“John is a father, husband and colleague, and a valued and active member of his local community.”
He said Mr Caldwell has been a valued police officer for 26 years “committed to public service as a senior investigating officer supporting victims and their families in bringing offenders to justice”.
He also confirmed that three men, aged 38, 45 and 47, had been arrested on Thursday morning in connection with the police’s attempted murder investigation.
Who are the New IRA?
The New IRA – also known as the New Irish Republican Army – are a small militant nationalist group.
Founded in 2012, the group are opposed to Britain’s rule over the region, including the 1998 Good Friday Agreement peace deal, which largely ended three decades of sectarian violence in the country.
Police officers are still sporadically targeted by splinter groups of mainly Irish nationalist militants, with the last shooting taking place in Northern Ireland in 2017.
The New IRA has carried out attacks before, including car bombings.
The New IRA claimed responsibility for a potentially lethal bomb discovered under the car of a police officer at a golf club in east Belfast in June 2019.
The group were also responsible for the killing of journalist Lyra McKee in 2019.
Asked if there is a concern for wider security and safety, and whether action would be taken to improve security for some police officers, ACC McEwan told BBC Radio Ulster: “On an ongoing basis, we see these elements continually trying to carry out attacks of this nature.
“We are supporting our officers and staff. We continually review our security arrangements and advise our officers on security arrangements and that’s on an ongoing basis.”
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He said the country’s terror threat level at the moment remained “substantial”, meaning that an attack is “highly likely”.
ACC McEwan also paid tribute to a “brave” member of the public who ran towards DCI Caldwell during the attack and administered first aid.
“I would also like to thank our partners in the ambulance service. If it hadn’t been for their quick action in getting John to hospital we might have been looking at something very different this morning,” he added.
‘A cowardly and callous attack’
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris also commented on the shooting, describing it as “a cowardly and callous attack”.
He said: “This is a really significant event. It’s a very serious event. A well-known local police officer is now in a critical condition.
“My thoughts are with him and his family and everyone in the policing community and the community of Omagh.
“Society has moved on in Northern Ireland – there is no place for violence like this.”
Irish police are working closely in co-operation with their counterparts in the PSNI, and have intensified patrols amid suspicions the gunmen may have fled across the border.
In a statement last night, the Garda said it is “currently responding to an ongoing incident which took place earlier this evening in Northern Ireland”.
“A Garda Siochana has intensified patrolling in border counties.”
PSNI Temporary Detective Chief Superintendent Eamonn Corrigan said: “Our investigation is now under way and I would appeal to anyone who was in the area and witnessed what happened or could help with our enquiries to make contact with police on 101.”
‘A grotesque act of attempted murder’
The shooting has been condemned by politicians across the UK and Ireland.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he was appalled by the “disgraceful shooting of an off-duty police officer in Omagh”.
Irish premier Leo Varadkar condemned the “grotesque act of attempted murder”.
“Our thoughts are with the injured officer, his family, colleagues and friends at this difficult time,” the Taoiseach said.
“I utterly condemn this grotesque act of attempted murder.”
Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill said it was an “outrageous and shameful attack”.
“My immediate thoughts are with the officer and his family,” she said.
“I unreservedly condemn this reprehensible attempt to murder a police officer.”