The top legal adviser to the Stormont Executive has said the Government’s handling of proposed inquests into the deaths of IRA men shot by special forces was profoundly wrong.
The SAS shootings at Loughgall RUC station in Co Armagh were among the most controversial of the Troubles.
Eight members of the IRA and a civilian were killed during a fierce gun battle on May 8 1987.
The UK’s attorney general Dominic Grieve is to decide whether fresh inquests should be blocked in case highly sensitive national security information is revealed.
The matter was referred to him by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO).
Northern Ireland attorney general John Larkin QC’s office said: “The attorney general wishes me to inform you that he considers the Secretary of State’s decision to be profoundly wrong in principle and is currently reflecting on the appropriate response to it.”
Mr Larkin requested the new inquests after the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg found the men’s human rights had been violated.
Disputed circumstances surrounding how they died would be the subject of investigation by a coroner after previous conflicting reports.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers was the subject of Mr Larkin’s criticism after she stepped in to refer his decision to hold an inquest to Mr Grieve because she felt the disclosure of related information may be against the interests of national security.
She said: “It is still the same decision about whether to have an inquest, it is just a different law officer who is making that decision.
“In both cases, law officers act entirely independently of government and in both cases exactly the same criteria are applied.
“The law provides for a different decision maker where national security considerations are at stake.”
The IRA men were killed as they approached the station with a 200lb bomb, its fuse lit, in the bucket of a hijacked digger.
The republicans who died were the East Tyrone IRA commander Patrick Kelly, 32; Declan Arthurs, 21; Seamus Donnelly, 19; Michael Gormley, 25; Eugene Kelly, 25; James Lynagh, 31, Patrick McKearney, 32, and Gerard O’Callaghan, 29.
A civilian, Anthony Hughes, 36, was killed and his brother badly wounded when they were caught up in the crossfire.
Brian Gormally, director of the Committee for the Administration of Justice, an NGO which investigates controversial deaths in Northern Ireland, claimed there was a relentless campaign, led by the UK Government and supported by some in Northern Ireland, to suppress the truth about the activities of state agents during the conflict.
“The aim is to ensure impunity for any crimes and human rights violations committed by servants of the state, whether policemen, soldiers or secret agents,” he said.
“This is the latest stage in this epic cover-up, using the deliberately undefined concept of national security to stifle a proper investigation.”
SDLP MLA Alban Maginness said: “The British Government’s intervention in the attorney general’s well-considered decision gives very poor example to the political parties in Northern Ireland who are attempting to grapple with the issue of dealing with the past.
“The reaction of Theresa Villiers in blocking the exposure of security force involvement in this incident simply confirms the view that the British Government has little serious interest, along with other parties, in dealing with the past on an ethical basis.”
Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew said the Government was denying truth to the Loughgall families.
She said: “The British Government is denying the families of those killed at Loughgall their basic human rights by blocking access to the truth.”