COOKSTOWN, Northern Ireland (AP) – Thousands of mourners lined the main street of a central Northern Ireland town Tuesday to bid farewell to a prison officer slain by Irish Republican Army militants, the first killing of a guard in nearly two decades _ and a reminder that the British territory’s peace is not yet complete.
David Black, 52, was shot several times from a passing car as he drove to work at Northern Ireland’s main prison. His car went off the road and landed in a ravine.
No group claimed responsibility, but police and politicians have pinned it to an IRA splinter group based in the nearby town of Lurgan. That faction has been blamed for dozens of shootings and bombings since the 2007 formation of Northern Ireland’s unity government _ the central achievement of a two-decade peace process.
Although that coalition of British Protestants and Irish Catholics has thrived, Northern Ireland at grass-roots level remains a bitterly divided land.
Black’s family asked politicians from the major Catholic-backed party, Sinn Fein, to stay away from Tuesday’s Protestant service. Sinn Fein for decades was the public face of the Provisional IRA, the major anti-British paramilitary group that killed nearly 1,800 people, many of them from the province’s Protestant majority, before renouncing violence and disarming in 2005.
An honor guard of prison officers in dark-blue uniforms carried Black’s coffin down the broad main street of Cookstown. Family members then carried it into a small Presbyterian church, accompanied by a bagpiper’s lament. The casket was covered in a Union Jack flag and topped by Black’s service cap and a single white rose.
Inside, his teenage children paid tribute to their father. His 17-year-old daughter Kyra offered a tearful poem, his 21-year-old son Kyle a personal tribute _ and a message to his killers.
“They can take Daddy from us. They can deprive Mummy of a loving husband,” Kyle Black said, “but they can never take away the love that we have in our hearts and the memories that we will all cherish.” He said his father was honest, hard-working and devoted to his family, “the characteristics of the perfect daddy.”
In his sermon the church’s minister and Black family friend, the Rev. Tom Greer, contrasted Black’s “honor and principle, kindness and generosity” with “the murderous thugs and bloodthirsty criminals who took David’s life.”
For 30 years Black worked as a guard in Northern Ireland prisons, keeping tabs on some of the world’s most notorious gunmen and bombers. It was a much more dangerous job to have when outside the prison walls, because the Provisional IRA made off-duty guards a high-priority target, killing more than two dozen, often in front of their families.
No guard had been killed since 1993, the year Northern Ireland’s peace process started in earnest with secret talks involving Sinn Fein. Cease-fires by the Provisional IRA and major Protestant paramilitary groups followed a year later, and those truces have largely held for the past two decades.
Several small IRA splinter groups seek to maintain the Provisionals’ campaign with sporadic attacks, though they rarely succeed, last killing in April 2011 when a booby-trap bomb hidden under a car blew up a policeman in his driveway.
The British and Irish governments have vowed to hunt down Black’s killers. But three suspected IRA militants arrested Friday _ two in Lurgan, one across the border in the Republic of Ireland _ were released without charge.
A few hundred people also gathered Tuesday outside Belfast City Hall to observe a 15-minute silence in Black’s memory and to pray for no further killing.
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