A maverick gang of dissident republicans are being blamed for a car bomb attack that critically injured a Catholic police officer.
Peadar Heffron (33), who joined the PSNI in March 2002, was said to be in a critical condition last night as surgeons at the Royal Victoria Hospital battled to save his life.
The officer suffered massive injuries to his lower body.
He was stabilised at Antrim Area Hospital before he was transferred to Belfast. It is understood a priest was called to his bedside yesterday to administer the Last Rites.
Constable Heffron, who married last year and is related to a senior Sinn Fein member, was driving along the Milltown Road in Randalstown, half a mile from his home, when the device exploded shortly after 6am yesterday.
Army Technical Officers were tasked to the scene and the area remained cordoned off last night.
Mr Heffron’s car, a blue Alfa Romeo, was removed yesterday for further examination.
The attack, which has been blamed on dissident republicans, has been met with revulsion across Northern Ireland, with the local community left reeling.
Senior detectives believe a Belfast-based gang of maverick republicans organised the attack.
Officers say the members of the gang are not aligned to any of the known renegade groups, such as the Real IRA or Continuity IRA, but have become active in terrorist activities in recent months.
One officer said: “This lot believe they have a better chance of staying under the radar if they remain outside the recognised groups, but this attack shows they are just as ruthless and indiscriminate as the others”.
Constable Heffron has been described by those who know him as well respected and well liked. Captain of the PSNI Gaelic team, he was proud of his Irish heritage and took part in the first ever Policing Board meeting held in Irish in Londonderry last year.
At the meeting in May, Constable Heffron delivered a presentation in Irish on the work of the police. He told those gathered: “There is undoubtedly a challenge before the PSNI to promote a career or profession in the PSNI in a community where such a possibility would have been impossible a few years ago.”
Yesterday’s attack came months after a bomb exploded under the car being driven by the partner of a policeman stationed in Holywood, and only several miles from Massereene barracks in Antrim, where two soldiers were shot dead by dissident republicans in March last year.
The threat level against PSNI personnel is on the increase and in November last year a police officer warned the Belfast Telegraph that a fellow police officer will be murdered by terrorists.
He said: “The job is made all the more difficult when you are living your life knowing that someone is just waiting to kill you, one of your colleagues or a member of your family.
“That constant threat and worry does not end when you leave work.
“Before you even travel to work, you have to check your car and all around your house to make sure it is safe.
“When you are travelling to and from work, it is not just a case of driving to work and showing up.
“You are constantly looking to see who is about, if someone is following you.”
PSNI Chief Constable Matt |Baggott said: “Our colleague was brutally targeted in a cowardly attack as he left his home to travel to work.
“He suffered critical injuries and is currently being treated in hospital. Our thoughts and prayers are with him, his wife and his family at this very difficult and trying time.
“The vast majority of people who have heard today's news have been horrified.
“Indeed, throughout the day I have received messages of support from across the world and all communities.”
The painful gasp of a housekeeper in a parochial house in Peadar Heffron’s home parish of Creggan in Co Antrim summed up the disgust and revulsion at the booby trap car bomb that left the young police officer fighting for his life in hospital last night.