A senior off-duty police officer was shot up to four times by two suspected New IRA gunmen in front of his young son during a ‘barbaric’ attack in Northern Ireland last night.
Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell was putting footballs in the back of his car after coaching children at Youth Sport Omagh in Co Tyrone when he was ambushed by the two masked men at around 8pm.
After they fired multiple shots, the father tried to run but fell to the ground, where the pair continued to fire at him as screaming children ran to safety.
The suspected terrorists, who police believe are from the New IRA dissident republican group responsible for murdering the journalist Lyra McKee, 29, fled in a car that was later found burnt out.
Mr Caldwell 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.
He was taken to hospital in Londonderry where he is in a critical but stable condition. An attempted murder investigation is now underway, with police in the Republic of Ireland assisting with the hunt for the gunmen amid suspicions they may have fled across the border.
Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell has led numerous high profile investigations in Northern Ireland
The attack took place at the Youth Sport Omagh sports centre at around 8pm last night
Revealed: How high-profile detective had been investigating the murder of a fellow cop
One of the high-profile investigations headed up by John Caldwell was the murder of PSNI officer Ronan Kerr in the same town where the senior detective was gunned down.
The killing of Constable Kerr was blamed on dissident republicans styling themselves as the New IRA – the same renegade group police suspect of shooting Detective Chief Inspector Caldwell on Wednesday night.
Mr Kerr, a 25-year-old recently graduated police recruit, died when a booby trap bomb detonated under his car outside his home in Omagh in April 2011.
Making an appeal for information on the 10th anniversary of the murder in 2021, Mr Caldwell’s words now assume a chilling poignancy given what happened to him in the same Co Tyrone town. ‘His job was to protect the community,’ he said.
‘Despicably, people living in his own community planned and plotted to kill him simply because he was a police officer bravely going out every day to protect people and make communities safer places to live and work.’
Given the ever-present security risk, the PSNI strive to protect the identities of the majority of their officers in the public sphere. However, high-ranking officers do have more of a public profile and they often front media appeals related to major investigations.
Mr Caldwell is a familiar face on the TV news in Northern Ireland and is accustomed to giving press conferences and interviews. In December he was involved in the investigation following the murder of expectant mother Natalie McNally.
Ms McNally, 32, who was 15 weeks pregnant, was stabbed at her home in Silverwood Green, Lurgan, Co Armagh. Earlier in December, Mr Caldwell took on the case of Mark Lovell.
The 58-year-old was shot a number of times at close range while in his car outside his home in Newry. A month later, the DCI assumed the role of senior investigating officer when Shane Whitla, a 39-year-old father-of-four, was shot dead in Lurgan, Co Armagh.
In October 2022, he headed the probe into the murder of Ryan McNab in Co Antrim. Mr McNab, 31, from north Belfast, was killed in an attack in the Rathcoole area of Newtownabbey.
In January of that year, Mr Caldwell fronted public appeals following the fatal stabbing of Martin Gavin, 47, in Belfast. The previous year, Mr Caldwell led the probe into the murder of Katie Brankin, who was murdered by her partner at a glamping site in Limavady, Co Derry.
Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan told BBC Radio Ulster: ‘Last night at approximately 8 o’clock at the youth sports centre in Killyclogher Road, Omagh, whilst John was putting footballs into the boot of his car, and accompanied by his young son, two gunmen approached and we believe both have fired multiple shots.
‘John has ran a short distance and he’s fallen to the ground, and as he’s on the ground the gunmen have continued to fire at him.
‘That shows the absolute callous nature of this attack in a crowded space where there are children and parents in the vicinity, and we saw many of those young people and children running in sheer terror to get to safety.
‘At least two other vehicles have been struck, and again this highlights the callous and reckless nature of this attack.’
Mr McEwan said the investigation is at an early stage and that police believe the gunmen made off in a small dark car which was later found burned out just outside Omagh.
‘I would appeal for anyone with any information about those involved, about the vehicle, or anything else you think may be of use to the inquiry, no matter how small, please come forward to police,’ he said.
Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan said ‘violent dissident republicans’ were now the ‘primary focus’ of the investigation’.
‘We are keeping an open mind. There are multiple strands to that investigation. The primary focus is on violent dissident republicans and within that there is a primary focus as well on New IRA,’ Mr McEwan said.
Asked if he thinks dissident republicans are probably responsible, he said: ‘Yes, as I say, we are keeping an open mind as we do in every investigation, but that is a primary line of inquiry for this attack.’
The office said there remained a risk of further attacks, with the threat level classed as ‘substantial’.
‘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,’ he said.
‘The threat level at the moment sits at substantial and that means an attack is highly likely.
‘That is an ongoing piece of work in terms of supporting our officers and staff and looking at security arrangements.’
Mr McEwan paid tribute to a ‘brave’ member of the public who ran Mr 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 said.
‘But as I say, John is still in a critical condition.’
He said police recognise the ‘huge shock and trauma’ the attack has caused in the community in Omagh, adding that he wanted to thank them for their continued patience and support.
Mr Caldwell was taken to hospital in Londonderry where he is in a critical but stable condition, while a huge search is now underway to find the gunmen
The detective had worked on some of Northern Ireland’s most high profile murder cases
An attempted murder investigation has been launched by Northern Irish police
A forensics officer at the scene of a shooting in the Killyclogher Road area of Omagh
What is the New IRA? How they became Northern Ireland’s biggest terror threat
The New IRA – the primary focus of detectives investigating the attack on a senior police officer in Omagh – is believed to be the largest of the dissident republican groups in Northern Ireland.
It has been linked to a number of murders including those of journalist and author Lyra McKee in 2019, Pc Ronan Kerr in 2011, and prison officers David Black in 2012 and Adrian Ismay in 2016.
The New IRA is believed to have been formed between 2011 and 2012 following the merger of a number of smaller groups, including the Real IRA – the group behind the 1998 Omagh bomb.
The group is strongest in Londonderry and Strabane, with a presence in Belfast, and other pockets in Co Tyrone, and Lurgan in Co Armagh. In August 2020, the alleged leadership of the New IRA suffered a major blow with a series of arrests prompted by an MI5 surveillance operation.
Less than a year before, in September 2019, a bomb in an ‘advanced state of readiness’ was found in the Creggan area of Derry. Police said the device, attributed to the New IRA, was designed to kill police officers.
In June 2019, the group claimed responsibility for the failed murder bid of a police officer after an unexploded bomb was found under the officer’s car parked at Shandon Park Golf Club in Belfast. In April that year, the New IRA claimed responsibility for shooting dead Ms McKee who was observing rioting in the Creggan area.
A few months after the murder of Ms McKee, Assistant Chief Constable Barbara Gray, the officer in charge of the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s anti-terror response, said the New IRA derived ‘sick and sad’ pleasure in the reaction to the shooting, motivating them to intensify their activities in the region.
Ms Gray expressed regret that the public outcry following the murder of the 29-year-old did not act as a watershed moment for the dissidents to reconsider their adherence to violence. She claimed the reverse has been true, saying the killing in Derry’s Creggan area was a factor in a spike in dissident murder bids in the region.
A month before the murder of Ms McKee, the New IRA claimed responsibility for sending small explosive devices in the post to two airports and a train station in London and to the University of Glasgow. In January 2019, police blamed the New IRA after a bomb placed in a van exploded outside the courthouse in Derry.
Meanwhile, in 2020 a senior republican said New IRA threats against Sinn Fein were ‘stupid’ and ‘dangerous’. At the time, all party members were warned of a dissident plot to launch an under-car bomb attack. Gerry Kelly said it would not deter elected representatives but would worry members of their families.
Michelle O’Neill, then Stormont’s Deputy First Minister, said officers had warned that dissident republicans were planning to attack her and Mr Kelly. It came in response to the pair’s attendance at a Police Service of Northern Ireland recruitment event.
Dissident republican terrorist activity has been at a lower level in Northern Ireland in recent years and security services have secured a number of successes disrupting the activities of terror groups. Last March, the level of terrorism threat from dissident republicans was lowered from severe to substantial for the first time in 12 years.
The decision to change the threat level was announced by the then-Secretary of State Brandon Lewis but made independently by the security service MI5. The level is subject to continuous review and judgments are based on a wide range of information.
This was the first time the threat level in Northern Ireland was reduced from severe since it was first published in 2010. Substantial means a terror attack is likely and could occur without warning.
Mr McEwan said: ‘First and foremost, can I say as a police officer, it is shocking, horrific and a certain amount of anger that this is happening to one of our colleagues and friends.
‘We are supporting our officers and staff. And as a member of the community it is again shocking, and I welcome the condemnation that we’ve seen across the community.’
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he was appalled by the ‘disgraceful shooting of an off-duty police officer in Omagh’.
The New IRA was previously blamed for the killing of journalist Lyra McKee in Londonderry in 2019.
Last November, the group was thought to be behind the attempted murder of two police officers in a bomb attack in Strabane, Co Tyrone.
Omagh has seen significant dissident violence in the past, including a Real IRA bomb attack in 1998 which killed 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins.
It was also where Constable Ronan Kerr was murdered in April 2011.
The terrorism threat level in Northern Ireland was lowered from severe to substantial for the first time in 12 years last March.
The shooting of Mr Caldwell has been condemned by politicians across the UK and Ireland.
Irish premier Leo Varadkar condemned the ‘grotesque act of attempted murder’.
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said the shooting was ‘diabolical and unacceptable’, and added there is no excuse or political rationale for it.
She told RTE: ‘There can be no hiding place for this. There can be no sympathy for this.
‘There is no rhyme or reason politically speaking for a vicious act of thuggery like this.
‘Now what we need is an all-Ireland effort co-operation between An Garda Siochana and the PSNI to find the motive for this act, and more importantly to apprehend the perpetrators and anybody with any evidence or any information must not hesitate in bringing that forward immediately to the appropriate authorities.’
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s political leaders have issued a joint statement condemning the shooting of a senior police officer in Omagh.
Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Alliance leader Naomi Long, UUP leader Doug Beattie and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said they stand united in outright condemnation of the attack.
‘We speak for the overwhelming majority of people right across our community who are outraged and sickened by this reprehensible and callous attempted murder,’ they said.
‘The community of Omagh has endured profound suffering, loss, and pain in the past which has left a deep trauma, and so this act of violence has left people there rightly angered.
‘There is absolutely no tolerance for such attacks by the enemies of our peace. Those responsible must be brought to justice.
‘This will require the full co-operation of the public whom we call upon to assist police in this attempted murder investigation.
‘Together we stand with John’s family and his colleagues in the police service at this time.’
The principal of Omagh High School, whose students were at the scene where an off-duty police officer was shot, has said that violence must be ‘pushed away from our community’.
‘I can only imagine how difficult it must be for the youngsters this morning, waking up in the aftershock of what they experienced last night,’ Christos Gaitatzis told BBC Radio Ulster.
‘I feel that those people affected here last night were my children, were my family. We really need to get together as a community in order to make sure that these types of instances, that contain violence in the most heinous way I can describe, have to be pushed away from our community.
‘(We have to) make sure that those individuals are caught and isolated out of our community to make sure that Omagh remains the town that it always has been – a town that is together, is coming together at all times, especially during difficult circumstances like this.’
A large police response followed the attack, which has left the officer in a critical but stable condition
Timeline: How dissident republicans opposed to the Good Friday Agreement are behind a string of deadly attacks
Dissident republicans are suspected of shooting an off-duty police officer, Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell, as he coached young people at a sports complex in Omagh.
The incident is the latest in a line of sporadic attacks on the security forces over the last 15 years committed by violent extremists opposed to Northern Ireland’s peace process.
– May 2008 – A Catholic Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officer sustains serious leg injuries when a bomb detonates under his car near Castlederg, Co Tyrone.
– March 2009 – Two soldiers, Sappers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey, are shot dead by the Real IRA outside Massereene military barracks in Co Antrim. Just 48 hours later, police officer Stephen Carroll is shot dead while responding to a call in Craigavon, Co Armagh.
– January 2010 – Catholic police constable Peadar Heffron, 33, is seriously injured when a booby trap device detonates under his car about a mile from his home in Randalstown, Co Antrim.
– January 2010 – The Real IRA fires shots at a police station in Bessbrook, Co Armagh. No one is injured.
Lyra McKee, 29, was murdered by New IRA terrorists while covering a riot
– February 2010 – Kieran Doherty, 31, is found shot dead close to the border in Co Londonderry. The Real IRA said it was responsible for the murder of Mr Doherty, who was one of its members.
– February 2010 – A bomb explodes outside Newry courthouse. No one is injured but the gates of the court are damaged.
– April 2010 – A bomb explodes outside Newtownhamilton police station causing considerable damage.
– April 2010 – A bomb in a hijacked taxi explodes outside Palace Barracks in Holywood, which includes the MI5 headquarters, injuring one man.
– August 2010 – Three children suffer minor injuries when a bomb explodes in a bin in Lurgan, Co Armagh.
– April 2011 – Catholic police recruit Ronan Kerr, 25, is killed when a bomb explodes under his car at his home in Omagh, Co Tyrone.
– September 2011 – The Real IRA is blamed for two bomb attacks at the home of a Catholic police officer and a retired doctor who works for the police near Claudy, Co Derry.
– October 2011 – A bomb explodes outside the UK City of Culture offices in Derry.
– January 2012 – A Scottish soldier finds a bomb inside his car parked at his girlfriend’s house in the Ligoniel area of north Belfast.
– November 2012 – Prison officer David Black, 52, is gunned down as he drives along the M1 motorway to work at Maghaberry high security jail. The New IRA claims responsibility for his murder.
– December 2012 – An off-duty police officer discovers a bomb under his car in east Belfast.
– March 2013 – Police escape injury when a device explodes in a bin during a parade in Lurgan.
– October 2013 – Dissident republicans are blamed for a series of letter bomb attacks. Packages addressed to secretary of state Theresa Villiers and two senior police officers are made safe.
– November 2013 – A bomb in a hijacked car partially explodes close to the Victoria Square shopping complex in Belfast city centre. No one is injured.
– December 2013 – A bomb in a sports bag explodes in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter disrupting Christmas celebrations.
– February 2014 – Letter bombs are sent to Army careers offices in Oxford, Slough, Kent, Brighton, Hampshire and Berkshire. Dissident republicans are blamed.
– March 2014 – Police are attacked with a mortar in west Belfast. There are no reports of injuries and minimal damage was caused.
– May 2014 – The reception area of a hotel in Londonderry is damaged by a fire bomb.
– April 2015 – A bomb explodes outside a Probation Service office in Derry. No one is hurt.
– June 2015 – A bomb is discovered under a police officer’s car in Eglinton, Co Derry. The target’s wife also served with the PSNI.
– October 2015 – A police recruitment event in Londonderry is cancelled after a bomb is discovered in the grounds of the venue.
– November 2015 – Police officers escape injury after eight high velocity shots are fired at their patrol car in west Belfast.
– March 2016 – Prison officer Adrian Ismay dies two weeks after a bomb explodes under his van at Hillsborough Drive in east Belfast.
– January 2017 – A police officer is injured in a shooting at a filling station on the Crumlin Road in Belfast. The garage’s busy forecourt is sprayed with automatic gunfire in the attack.
– February 2017 – A device explodes close to a police officer’s car in the Culmore area of Derry.
– January 2019 – A bomb placed in a van explodes outside the courthouse in Derry. Police blame the blast on the New IRA.
– March 2019 – The New IRA claims responsibility for sending small explosive devices in the post to two airports and a train station in London and the University of Glasgow.
– April 2019 – Journalist and author Lyra McKee, 29, is shot dead by dissidents while observing rioting in the Creggan area of Derry. The New IRA claims the attack. Several men are currently awaiting trial charged with the murder.
– June 2019 – An unexploded bomb is found under a police officer’s car parked at Shandon Park Golf Club in Belfast. The New IRA claims responsibility for the failed murder bid.
– July 2019 – A device explodes in Craigavon. Police blame dissident republicans and say it was a clear attempt to murder police officers.
– August 2019 – A bomb detonates near the border in Co Fermanagh. The attack at Wattlebridge is blamed on the Continuity IRA. It is seen as another bid to target police and Army bomb disposal officers.
– September 2019 – A bomb in an ‘advanced state of readiness’ is found in the Creggan area of Derry. Police said the device, attributed to the New IRA, was designed to kill police officers.
– August 2020 – The alleged leadership of the New IRA suffers a major blow with a series of arrests prompted by an MI5 surveillance operation.
– April 2021 – A bomb is placed beside a car parked outside the home of a female officer in Dungiven, Co Derry.
– March 2022 – The Government lowers the threat level for dissident republican attacks in Northern Ireland from severe to substantial. The threat had severe – the highest level – since 2010.
– November 2022 – A police patrol vehicle sustains damage after being targeted by an explosive device in Strabane, Co Tyrone. Days later a viable explosive device is discovered in a hijacked car left outside Waterside PSNI station in Derry.