Third Force: a long, long way from there to here…

Today marks the 25th anniversary of Paisleyism forming yet another vigilante paramilitary – the Ulster Third Force. Northern Political Columnist for the Irish Star, John Coulter, examines the group as well as analysing the impact of a new political ‘Third Force’ threatening unity within the DUP. By John Coulter:

Today (Tuesday) marks the 25th anniversary of the formation of the Ian Paisley-inspired Ulster Third Force paramilitary group in 1981.
It was set up on 7 November that year, supposedly to reduce the number of murders of Protestants in border areas in the wake of the ending of the Maze republican hunger strike the previous month, during which 10 Provo and INLA inmates died.

On that November evening, around 300 loyalists, many wearing masks and combat jackets and carrying cudgels, sealed off the overwhelmingly Protestant village of Kells in the heartland of DUP boss Paisley’s North Antrim constituency. The organisation was modelled on another pro-Paisleyite vigilante mob of the 1960s – the Ulster Protestant Volunteers, as well as militant Paisleyite pressure group of that era, the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee.

Within a month, the Third Force was claiming a membership of between 15,000 and 20,000. The highlight of its activity came on a rainy and windswept evening on 23 November, 1981, when 5,000 Third Force members paraded at a DUP orchestrated rally in Newtownards, Co Down, to protest at the deteriorating Northern security situation. However, the rally was bedevilled with allegations some of the ranks of masked men comprised members of loyalists deaths squads from the UVF and UDA.

The rally had been part of a Loyalist Day of Action across the North in the wake of the murder a few days’ earlier on 14 November of controversial South Belfast Ulster Unionist MP Rev Robert Bradford.
Apart from marching around predominantly loyalist town centres and organising road blocks in Protestant districts, there is no record of the Third Force carrying out a terrorist act, or anyone being charged with membership.

The small scale of its activities got the Third Force dubbed the Third Farce in some loyalist quarters, and in republican areas of Derry, the organisation was mocked by Sinn Fein, which organised a so-called Fourth Force with masked men also marching in military formations, but with the Irish tricolour at their head and responding to commands in the Irish language. The launch of the Paisley-supporting Third Force sparked warnings from the British Government that private armies would not be tolerated. There was also a torrent of sharp criticism from nationalist politicians.

At the time, leading Free Presbyterian cleric and DUP politician Rev Ivan Foster was named as the Third Force’s Fermanagh commander. However, by March 1982, the Third Force had largely been ‘stood down’ as the DUP prepared for the Assembly elections later that year.

Four years later in 1986, it was alleged some of those loyalists who had been active with the Third Force became involved with the red-bereted and Paisley-inspired paramilitary group, the Ulster Resistance Movement. It had been established in protest at the previous year’s signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement at Hillsborough on 15 November by the then British and Irish premiers Maggie Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald.

However, it is unlikely this week the DUP will commemorate the silver jubilee of the formation of the paramilitary Third Force as fears grow on how to control the supposedly increasingly political ‘Third Force’ within its ranks which is opposed to the St Andrews Agreement and a power-sharing with Sinn Fein at Stormont.

This Friday, 10 November, is the deadline by which the Northern political parties must give their official views to the British Government on the St Andrews Agreement, with all eyes focused mainly on the DUP and SF. Since the 13 October Scottish deal, a number of sharp disagreements have emerged within DUP ranks, leading to allegations unionist dissidents could be preparing to run anti-deal candidates against the DUP in any future Assembly elections should the Paisley party form the power-sharing Executive with republicans.

However, unionist sources last night told the Star Ian Paisley had the definite support of at least two-thirds of his party, in spite of high profile criticism of the St Andrews Agreement from grassroots favourite MEP Jim Allister, and former Larne Mayor the veteran councillor Jack McKee.

Recent tough-talking statements from DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson of East Belfast and North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds have appeared to throw cold water on the notion of agreement on power-sharing by 24 November.

However, these are being viewed in many unionist circles as merely sabre-rattling to keep the DUP’s religious bog men from gathering too much momentum in the run-up to Friday, and especially the crunch date of 24 November when the DUP and SF have to provide their nominations for First and Deputy First Minister.

A Stormont source told the Star last night Northern Secretary Peter Hain would be prepared to accept separate nominations from the two opposing parties in the form of written letters rather than call all 108 Assembly members to Parliament Buildings for formal nominating. In spite of rumblings of division within the DUP, the party leadership – and Paisley individually – is not facing the same crisis with the St Andrews Agreement as former UUP boss David Trimble endured over the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

With a multi-billion pound peace bonanza from British Chancellor and likely future Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown on the table, coupled with the multi-million cash injection from the South, Paisley is unlikely to risk the voters’ wrath by snubbing a deal with the Shinners. For Paisley, two-thirds of a party is good enough, especially as he can be guaranteed the backing of the pro-deal UUP.

As for the supposed electoral threat from North Down barrister Bob McCartney’s fringe, but vehemently anti-deal United Kingdom Unionist Party, the political medicine of keeping educational selection, capping the rates and combating water charges will soon cure that headache.

First published in the Irish Star.

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