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Ian Paisley death: Third Force 'were a motley crew of teens and farmers...'

Ian Paisley flirted on the fringes of paramilitarism for a significant section of his political career, culminating in the formation of his infamous 'Third Force' – supplementing the legal forces of the Army and then RUC.

As far back as the late 1960s, he suggested he could raise a "people's militia", which would be at the Stormont government's bidding to work alongside the security forces.

It was an idea which was to surface repeatedly and form part of Paisley's wish to literally follow in the footsteps of his revered hero, Edward Carson, on the 'Carson Trail'.

The suggestion came up, for example, during the 1970s internment crisis, when he also demanded the reformation of the disbanded B-Specials.

But it was a full decade later, in 1981, when the DUP leader brought five journalists to a hillside somewhere in the vicinity of Ballymena to watch around 500 men, some of them wearing combat jackets and balaclavas, in army-like lines.

On the instructions of the MP, they held up pieces of paper above their heads, which they waved in the darkness, and which he said were certificates for legally-held firearms. But the men were not actually armed.

Ulster Unionist general secretary, Norman Hutton, told NIO political adviser, Stephen Leach, that the certificates "were in fact pieces of paper from a House of Commons notepad".

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But the 'militia' would re-emerge later that year with the title of the Third Force and a show of strength involving an estimated 6,000 men, who marched through Newtownards to the courthouse.

"They were a motley crew," wrote journalists Ed Maloney and Andy Pollak in their definitive biography of Paisley. "There were sallow-faced teenagers and plump prosperous farmers... there was not a gun to be seen anywhere..."

Loyalists were already referring to the Third Force as the 'third farce' and an editorial in the Daily Telegraph said Paisley's posturing had helped persuade "the British people that Ulster is a strange and alien land".

Mr Paisley, however, was not the only clergyman who could wear a dog collar along with the distinctive beret of the Third Force – he was accompanied by Fermanagh minister, the Rev Ivan Foster, and the Rev William McCrea.

The Third Force came on the Government's radar screen. Senior official, Des Blatherwick, in a memo to colleagues in December, said: "An increasing number of Protestants, as well as Catholics, are complaining that the Government is not standing up to the Third Force. Everyone knows that laws are being broken."

And DJ Wyatt, another NIO official, took the view that "most of those involved in Third Force activities wished to see draconian measures applied against the whole Catholic community".

In an earlier memo, Blatherwick had characterised Mr Paisley as the following: "A destructive critic, unable to create even a party which is more than a vehicle for himself. And if he were to try to be constructive, he would most probably not be able to maintain his political position.

"In sum, were Paisley to disappear overnight, a major obstacle to reconciliation and progress would have vanished with him.

"For HMG to seek to build Paisley up would, therefore, tend to increase his mischief-making power, with no real chance of harnessing his political weight. It would also radically antagonise the minority community."

Among his options were allowing Mr Paisley "to make trouble until we judge his antics too destructive" or, should he launch another major strike or foment paramilitary activity, "to try to cut the political ground from under Paisley's feet".

The main loyalist paramilitaries had, however, became increasingly wary of involvement with the firebrand politician, particularly after the abortive second Ulster Workers Strike.

In the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement, the political 'advisers' to the UVF, the Progressive Unionist Party led by David Ervine, were inside the negotiating tent – and pouring scorn on Paisley in public – while he and the DUP remained outside.

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