Former Irish taoiseach Charles Haughey did not want the bodies of three IRA members shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar to be taken home through the Republic of Ireland, archived British papers disclosed.
An elite team opened fire in March 1988 because they believed the republicans were about to detonate a remote-controlled bomb in the tiny British territory in the Mediterranean.
The Irish leader urged that the RAF fly their remains straight to Belfast rather than allowing their families to bring them through Dublin, which would have been a propaganda coup for Sinn Fein.
His secret intervention was disclosed in NIO documents newly released by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.
An official wrote: “Haughey this afternoon implored us personally through the ambassador in Dublin to ensure that the bodies of the three IRA terrorists shot in Gibraltar were kept out of the Republic at all costs.
“He made clear that he would not admit to this request in public.”
An inquest found the British commandos acted within the law when they shot dead the unarmed republicans, who were hailed as martyrs by IRA supporters.
Daniel McCann, 30, Sean Savage, 24, and Mairead Farrell, 31, were gunned down as they walked towards the Spanish border.
Critics of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s government claimed it was part of an unofficial shoot-to-kill policy pursued against the IRA by crack troops.
A civil servant wrote of Mr Haughey’s plan: “This proposal is clearly designed to solve a problem confronting Mr Haughey.
“It has however the attraction for us that it could short-circuit the current plans of the terrorists’ relatives, to whom the bodies have been released today.”
He added: “There is also no guarantee that the families can be squared in the way Mr Haughey apparently envisages, in which case we would be left in the most invidious position of appearing to countenance a dubious bargain with Sinn Fein.”
Another civil servant said it was “inconceivable” to use the RAF to fly the bodies home.