Proposals to hold a new inquest into the murder of eight IRA men and one civilian by the SAS in Loughgall almost 30 years ago has led to a row between loyalists and relatives of the dead men.

Unionist politicians have described the potential inquests as a ‘waste of state money’ after the London government said any new inquest was a matter for the North’s Advocate General to decide.

And Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew has vowed to support the families in their search for the truth after the latest statement from Secretary of State Theresa Villiers.

The television station UTV has reported that new inquests could be held into the nine deaths when undercover SAS soldiers confronted eight members of the IRA’s East Tyrone unit as they approached Loughgall RUC station with a bomb in a hijacked digger.

IRA men Jim Lynagh, Padraig McKearney, Gerard O’Callaghan, Tony Gormley, Eugene Kelly, Patrick Kelly, Seamus Donnelly and Declan Arthurs were shot outside the Armagh police station.

Civilian, Anthony Hughes was also killed and his brother badly wounded when they were caught up in the gunfire.

The UTV website reports that Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State Theresa Villiers confirmed in a statement on Friday that she has written to the region’s Attorney General John Larkin QC, to inform him that she has issued a certificate under Section 14(2) of the Coroners Act (Northern Ireland) 1959, in relation to the request for fresh inquests into the May 1987 deaths.

The statement issued by the Northern Ireland Office said the decision lay with the Advocate General Jeremy Wright.

It read: “The Secretary of State is satisfied that there is material held by the government which is both relevant to the decision whether to open fresh inquests in these cases, and which is national security sensitive.

“The effect of this certificate is that the Advocate General for Northern Ireland (the Attorney General for England and Wales, Jeremy Wright QC) will now consider these requests and take the decision on whether to direct that fresh inquests are conducted.

“It has been previously incorrectly reported by some media outlets that the Secretary of State is blocking inquests into these deaths.

“This is untrue, and does not accurately represent the Secretary of State’s role in this process. The effect of the legislation, and the role of the Secretary of State, is simply to make sure that the appropriate law officer is able to take the decision, with all of the information available, independent of government.

“The Advocate General is an independent law officer in the same way as the AGNI: he will make a decision independent of government. All of the options available to the AGNI will be available to the Advocate General, including a decision to direct that an inquest should be held.

“The Secretary of State’s decision in no way reflects a lack of trust in the role of the Attorney General for Northern Ireland.

“The Secretary of State, having fulfilled the requirements placed on her by the legislation, has no further role in to play in relation to the decision whether to direct these inquests.”

However, the UTV website reports that Relatives For Justice Director Mark Thompson said the decision was an attempt to undermine devolution.

He said: “Clearly the British government do not want information relating to the SAS ambush at Loughgall to be viewed by the North’s Attorney General, which begs the questions of why and what do the relevant documents contain?

“Further the decision is an attempt to undermine the office of the Attorney General and devolution itself and must been seen in the wider political context of influencing any decision given that the Advocate General is a member of the British Cabinet.”

Ulster Unionist Justice spokesperson Tom Elliott has claimed that an inquest would be a waste of public money and an example of a one-sided approach to dealing with the past.

Elliott said: “I cannot believe that more public money is going to be wasted on the consideration of inquests into the deaths of eight IRA terrorists at Loughgall.

“These terrorists died as they tried to inflict murder and mayhem on a small law abiding community in Loughgall. It’s an open and shut case. If these cowards hadn’t loaded a bomb into the front of a digger and set out armed to the teeth on their murderous expedition, an innocent man, Anthony Hughes, would be alive today.

“Again we see a one-sided approach to dealing with the past in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State appears content to concentrate on delivering, at whatever cost, to the families of terrorists, but not for the innocent victims.

“It is not lost on us that in the same week that the Conservative-Liberal government are talking about bringing in tough measures to deal with ISIS terrorists, here is another arm of the same government facilitating the waste of public money to pacify republican agitators who are trying to rewrite history to cover the tracks of dead terrorists.”

In response, Sinn Féin MP Michelle Gildernew told UTV that any inquest must have full disclosure from the British Government.

She said: “There is no doubt that the British Army and RUC had prior warning of an attack on Loughgall RUC barracks in May 1987.

“However rather than mount a stop and arrest operation the British army and RUC carried out an ambush which resulted in the deaths of eight IRA volunteers and one civilian and serious injury to another civilian.

“The statement from British Secretary of State Theresa Villiers that there is material held by the British government which is both relevant to the decision whether to open fresh inquests in these cases only reinforces the need for an inquest to be held as soon as possible.

“The families of the dead men deserve to know the true circumstances surrounding the deaths of their loved ones so any new inquest must have full disclosure from the British Government including files that they claim are sensitive.

“I will be supporting the families in demanding that Advocate General Jeremy Wright sets a date for the opening of an inquest that is needed and in order to get to the truth.”