Top-secret reports on the shoot-to-kill policy of political killings operated by the British government in the north of Ireland are to be opened to the chief coroner John Leckey.
Mr Leckey told a preliminary hearing into the deaths of six republicans and a teenager in County Armagh in 1982 that he had been informed that PSNI/RUC police chief Hugh Orde had finally agreed to his request to see the confidential Stalker and Sampson reports.
A refusal by the previous RUC chief in 1994 of permission to see the reports led to inquests being abandoned.
IRA Volunteers Eugene Toman, Gervaise McKerr and John Burns were shot dead near Lurgan, County Armagh, by the RUC in November 1982. Later that month teenager Michael Tighe was shot dead at a hay shed near Craigavon and the following month republicans Roddy Carroll and Seamus Grew were shot dead near Armagh.
Conditions on Mr Leckey seeing the reports were, however, imposed.
A letter from the Crown Prosecution Service said that Mr Leckey would not be able to disclose the documents to anyone else, including lawyers representing the families of the dead men, without the agreement of Hugh Orde.
Families of the men issued a cautious welcome of what they considered to be a significant step forward, but expressed concern Orde may apply for Public Interest Immunity certificates [PII secrecy or gagging orders] to prevent the disclosure of certain key documents.
A lawyer representing Orde said he was still undertaking an examination of documents to establish what he considered sensitive and what was not.
The coroner said: “I am going to travel to a secure location rather than the reports come to my office. I intend to start after Christmas, in January - how long it will take I don’t know.”
He said that once he had read the documents it would enable him to establish what scope the inquests should follow, but he accepted that the inquests could become non-viable if Orde tried to hold back too much information.
Former Manchester deputy chief constable John Stalker first investigation shoot-to-kill allegations and, after he was removed from the probe, they were continued by Colin Sampson.
Tommy Carroll, brother of one of the dead men, said: “We would consider this announcement today to be a very positive development after all these years - it didn’t have to take this long.”
Speaking outside the inquest, he said: “I would hope the chief constable and Secretary of State don’t go down the road of issuing PII certificates.”
Mark Thompson, of Relatives for Justice, said the excuses of the past no longer existed.
“We are in a new dispensation, a new era. Twenty-five years have passed and the shootings need to be examined in an open and unhindered way.”
Sinn Féin Assembly member John O’Dowd welcomed the move as a first step.
“For justice to be achieved the very minimum requirement is for the legal team representing the families to now be given access to the report,” he said.
“Sinn Féin have called for the full publication of the Stalker/Sampson Report. It is not in the interests of justice for the police to continue to oppose proper access to the information in this report.”