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The arrests were made in the last week following the attempted murder of senior Northern Ireland detective John Caldwell
Loyalists with “strong links” to the New IRA have been arrested over the shooting of a senior detective, Northern Ireland’s Policing Board has been told.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said on Thursday it was still treating the attempted murder of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell as a dissident republican terror attack.
Caldwell was shot several times in Co. Tyrone last week and is still critically ill in hospital.
The off-duty police officer had just finished coaching a youth football team when he was targeted in the car park of the Omagh sports complex.
Police have made a number of arrests and three men remain in custody.
On Thursday, Sinn Fein policing board member Gerry Kelly asked Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan for an update on the investigation.
Kelly said it had been a “bit confusing” as there had been reports of arrests in the nationalist/republican community as well as the unionist/loyalist.
McEwan said: “We know there is speculation about the motivation behind the shooting incident because of the community background of some of the people who have been arrested.
“We are very clear that this is still assessed as being an attack carried out by the New IRA and that is where the primary focus of the investigation is.”
Kelly said it was believed that four of the people who had been arrested were from a loyalist background and asked if there was a loyalist connection to the shooting.
McEwan said people should not get “confused” with titles such as loyalism.
He added, “We still assess that this has been an attack carried out by the New IRA who have very explicitly stated that they wish to carry out attacks on police officers and John has been the target on this occasion.”
Messages From Around the World
Chief Constable Simon Byrne thanked board members and the public for their messages of support, which he said had been relayed to Caldwell’s immediate family.
He added: “We have made numerous arrests. I’ve been out myself three times to Omagh for various reasons to see first hand what is going on and to see John’s family, and to give them every support.
“It has been quite tremendous the effort that has gone into the determination to catch the people who did this, both from those investigators who are dealing with the immediate aftermath, the crime scene investigators who help us piece together the evidence bit by bit, and also the determination of colleagues from across the country, many of whom knew John, to do their bit.”
Byrne added that the PSNI had received messages “from all over the world” extending well wishes to the police and Caldwell’s family.
He added: “He remains critically ill in hospital, but he is in good care. We are ensuring that his wife and son have every possible support from the organisation.”
Caldwell had been loading footballs into the boot of his car alongside his young son when two masked men approached and opened fire on Feb. 22.
He had just finished coaching an under-15 football team when the attack was carried out in full view of shocked parents and children.
The shooting, described by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as “disgraceful,” has received condemnation across Northern Ireland’s political spectrum.
A joint statement from Stormont political leaders described the attempted murder bid as an attack carried out “by the enemies of our peace.”
New IRA claim
Police have previously said their main line of enquiry is that the attack was carried out by “violent dissident republicans,” with a “primary focus … on the New IRA.”
On Sunday night, a typed message appeared on a wall in Derry, purportedly from the New IRA, claiming responsibility for Caldwell’s attempted murder.
It was signed by “T O’Neill”—a name previously used by the dissident terrorist group.
“The Irish Republican Army claim responsibility for the military operation targeting senior Crown Force member John Caldwell,” the message reads.
“An active service unit of the IRA were in position to target the enemy within our chosen kill zone with other armed volunteers giving cover. All volunteers returned safely to base.”
The message went on to threaten police officers by saying the IRA has “security information regarding the out of bounds movement of Crown Force personnel.”
“We would say this, you still have to try and live a normal life day-to-day, one of these days the IRA will be waiting. T O’Neill,” it reads.
Speaking on Monday, McEwan said officers were aware of the message and were “currently reviewing its contents as part of the overall investigation.”
“On Friday, we confirmed that we were treating the attempted murder of DCI John Caldwell as terrorist-related and our primary line of enquiry was the New IRA,” he added.
The New IRA—the primary focus of detectives investigating the attack on the senior police officer—is believed to be the largest of the republican terrorist groups in Northern Ireland.
However, it has never been known to have worked alongside loyalists to carry out attacks.
The terrorist group has been linked to a number of murders in the province, including those of journalist and author Lyra McKee in 2019, police constable Ronan Kerr in Omagh in 2011, as well as prison officers David Black in 2012 and Adrian Ismay in 2016.
The terror group 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 bombing, which was the single worst atrocity of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
The group is strongest in Derry and in the nearby Co. Tyrone town of Strabane, with a presence in Belfast and smaller pockets in counties Tyrone and Armagh.
In August 2020, the alleged leadership of the New IRA suffered a major blow with a series of arrests prompted by MI5-led Operation Arbacia, which infiltrated the terrorist organisation.
Those arrested, including alleged New IRA leaders, remain in custody awaiting trial.
PA Media contributed to this report.