An off-duty police officer was shot in Northern Ireland on Wednesday night in what politicians condemned as a “shameful” attack committed by “terrorists” and a chilling reminder of the region’s past violence.
The attack took place as London and Brussels seek to clinch a deal on Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland that some activists have warned could destabilise a region where the dispute has paralysed local politics since last May.
“One man, a serving police officer, has been taken to hospital for treatment after being injured in a shooting incident at a sports complex just before 8pm this evening,” the Police Service of Northern Ireland stated.
The officer was in a “critical but stable condition”, according to PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne, who said he was “shocked and saddened” by the attack.
According to unconfirmed reports, the man was a detective who had been involved in investigating paramilitary and drug gangs and was in critical but stable condition after the incident at a youth centre in Omagh, County Tyrone.
Tom Elliott, a local Ulster Unionist party legislator, told the BBC that two masked gunmen shot the officer several times in front of young people at a football coaching session.
It was believed to be the first such gun attack on a police officer since 2017. The victim is one of the most senior police officers to be targeted since the end of Northern Ireland’s three-decade conflict in 1998. During “the Troubles”, republicans fought to end British rule and loyalist paramilitaries battled to keep Northern Ireland part of the UK.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the shooting.
It came just over a month before the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. That accord ended the Troubles and established a power-sharing political framework that has been plunged into crisis by the Brexit trade rules dispute.
“This is an outrageous and shameful attack,” Michelle O’Neill, first minister-designate for the nationalist Sinn Féin party, wrote on Twitter. “I unreservedly condemn this reprehensible attempt to murder a police officer.”
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist party, said: “These terrorists have nothing to offer and they must be brought to justice.”
Colum Eastwood, leader of the smaller nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party, called the attack “a chilling reminder of the horrifying violence that criminal gangs are willing to visit on the people of Northern Ireland”.
UK prime minister Rishi Sunak said he was “appalled” by the shooting. “My thoughts are with the officer and his family. There is no place in our society for those who seek to harm public servants protecting communities.”
Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance party, said it was an “evil act of cowardice”.
And Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s taoiseach, utterly condemned “this grotesque act of attempted murder”.
Omagh was the site of a 1998 bombing by the dissident Real IRA group, months after the Good Friday Agreement was concluded. It killed 29 people — the highest toll from a single atrocity in the conflict.
A year ago, London lowered the security threat in Northern Ireland to “substantial” from “severe”, the first time it had been reduced in a dozen years.