Comments by Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble about Rosemary Nelson and Pat Finucane have been greeted with anger and disbelief by the families of the two victims.
Speaking at the Westminster parliament in London, Mr Trimble claimed that both lawyers, who represented republican defendants before they were killed, had a ``clear terrorist connection''.
The remarks were extraordinary and out of character amid the welter of reaction to the Cory reports and the announcement of three public inquiries yesterday.
But Mr Trimble refused to withdraw the comments today, saying ``offence'' was ``unavoidable'', despite calls by both families for him to retract the remarks.
The Nelson family said they felt ``utter dismay and disbelief'' but the comments.
Mrs Nelson's brother Eunan Magee described the comments as ``totally wrong'' and demanded that the Ulster Unionist leader withdraw them immediately.
He said: ``Rosemary provided legal representation for her clients. To try and suggest that Rosemary herself was involved in terrorism in some way, it beggars belief.''
A statement later issued through the family solicitors said Mr Trimble's ``disgraceful'' remarks were very similar to those made by others before Mrs Nelson's murder ``which helped to create the climate and atmosphere in which Rosemary, a mother of three, was deprived of life''.
The comments by Mr Trimble were of the very type investigated by Judge Cory and formed part of the basis on which a public inquiry into collusion was urged by him, it said.
``Mr Trimble's remarks have caused great hurt and offence to the family of Rosemary Nelson at this difficult time,'' said the statement.
The chairman of the Criminal Bar Association in Northern Ireland accused Mr Trimble of ``putting certain solicitors lives at risk''.
Pearse Mcdermott added: ``The comments are deeply offensive, dangerous and irresponsible.
``The clear implication is that Mr Trimble might be making the mistake of judging the lawyers by the clients that he or she represents,'' he added.
``The fact of the matter is that this society is concerned about this kind of association of lawyers with their clients.''
Mr Trimble worsened the situation by extending his comments today.
``I don't think anybody thought he (Mr Finucane) was simply a lawyer,'' he said. ``I'm not saying he was (an IRA member), I'm just saying there's very, clear evidence of a close relationship.''
The Finucane family expressed outrage about the comments, which Mrs Finucane said were ``very hurtful and untrue''.
``His accusations were designed to signal to a small section of the public that my husband's murder was justified, but David Trimble thinks that the public are naive and they will believe his unfounded, unproven and cowardly accusations.''
``I have heard these lies before. A public inquiry will give him the opportunity to repeat the statements he made today and I look forward to the day when he is forced to publicly retract them.
Mrs Finucane said Mr Trimble's statement was not only false but pointed out that it was contradicted by Justice Cory himself and by the RUC files which he examined.
``As Justice Cory said as a result of the cowardly actions of Pat's murderers I have been deprived of the love and companionship of a good husband, his children of his care and guidance and Northern Ireland of his courage and skill as a lawyer.''
Sinn Féin Assembly member Bairbre de Brun used Trimble of `attempting to provide political cover for British securocrat murderers'.
``It is time that Mr Trimble faced up to the reality of collusion and accepted that the Special Branch, FRU and MI5 have all been involved in the murder of citizens and that the structures and personnel which operated this campaign are still in place and need to be removed.''
He said he was falling silent and going to make no further comment on the issue until after the European elections in the summer - and urged other party members to follow his lead.