By John Coulter, Irish Political Journalist
Where are the loyalist arsenals of death? That’s one of the key questions the proposed new Stormont department for policing and justice will face.
2006 marked the 20th anniversary of the formation of the loyalist terror group, Ulster Resistance, but it again raises the spectre of where the group’s supposedly substantial arsenal of illegal weapons is being stored.
The group emerged publicly in 1986 during an invitation-only launch in Belfast’s Ulster Hall attended by then DUP boss Ian Paisley, his then deputy Peter Robinson – now the North’s First Minister and DUP leader – and Fermanagh Free Presbyterian cleric, Rev Ivan Foster.
The group was earmarked by its famous red berets and basked in the warm glow of open support from the DUP. Ulster Resistance was formed as part of the unionist backlash to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in November 1985, effectively giving the South a say in Northern affairs.
It was widely assumed at the time by grassroots unionists that Ulster Resistance would become another loyalist vigilante group, similar to one established five years earlier – the Ulster Third Force.
Rev Foster, a DUP member of the 1982-86 Northern Assembly, was named as the local commander of the Fermanagh Third Force, but he left active politics in 1989.
2006 also saw the 25th anniversary of the formation of the pro-Paisley Third Force, which was similar to previous loyalist vigilante groups, such as Ulster Protestant Volunteers of the late 1960s and Ulster Services Corps, launched in 1977.
Ulster Resistance organised a series of recruitment rallies across the North and was said to have comprised nine battalions.
However, relations between the DUP and Ulster Resistance rapidly deteriorated when the Paisley party opted for talks rather than supporting a hostile paramilitary campaign against the ’85 Dublin Accord.
The split became public when a massive arms shipment to loyalists was intercepted in January 1988. That shipment was organised by the late super spy Brian Nelson, who reportedly died of a brain haemorrhage in Florida in 2003.
Nelson, a former soldier, had been one of the most highly placed British agents in the UDA and has become a senior UDA intelligence officer.
On the instructions of top UFF brigadier John McMichael – who was killed by the IRA in December 1987 – Nelson travelled to apartheid-run South Africa in 1985 to investigate the possibility of an arms deal.
The loyalists were to supply South African agents with missile plans or parts, or if possible a complete Shorts missile system, in return for a substantial shipment of arms.
The deal was reportedly sealed in December 1987, and it has been alleged Nelson kept his military intelligence handlers informed of developments at every stage.
The arms haul was to be equally divided between the UDA, UVF and Ulster Resistance. It came into the North in January 1988, and security sources believe it consisted in total of: 200 AK 47 assault rifles, 90 Browning pistols, 500 fragmentation grenades, 30,000 bullets and 12 RPG7 rocket launchers.
However, most of the UDA’s share of the cache was seized shortly after it was landed and leading UDA man Davy Payne caught. This cache supposedly only contained 61 rifles, 150 grenades and 11,000 bullets.
Whilst security forces also seized some of the UVF’s haul, some security sources estimate between half and a third of the original weapons still remain in loyalist paramilitary hands.
It is also believed some of Ulster Resistance’s South African weaponry was seized in a major arms find in Co Armagh in November 1988 because the weapons were similar to those seized from the UDA in Portadown and the UVF in Belfast.
Questions still remain as to where the remnants of Ulster Resistance are storing their part of the cache, and indeed for what purposes the supposedly now defunct terror group needs its arsenal.
Similarly, if Nelson played a key role in arranging the shipment, surely he must have told his British intelligence handlers where the arsenals have been hidden, and does MI5 actually know today the locations of the Ulster Resistance arms dumps?
There have been suggestions the now ageing Ulster Resistance leadership prefers a ‘let them rust’ policy, or gave the weapons to other loyalist terror groups.
Security experts also suggest there is no record of Ulster Resistance actually carrying out a gun or bomb attack using its South African weapons.
The group decided to ‘go it alone’ in 1989 in the international gun-running market. However, in April, one of its founders, Noel Little, and two others were arrested in Paris with a South African diplomat, Daniel Storm, and pieces of a demonstration missile from Shorts were found in their possession.
When freed on bail, Little denied he and his co-defendants, James King and Sammy Quinn, were seeking to obtain guns from South Africa for Ulster Resistance in return for missile technology.
A campaign was mounted in loyalist circles calling for the release of the ‘Paris Three’. When they appeared in Paris on arms charges in October 1991, they were released after being fined and given suspended sentences. All three denied being in any paramilitary group.
In November 1989, Ulster Resistance claimed two of its members – a Lurgan businessman and a Kilrea building worker – had been murdered by the Provos after being ‘set up’ by MI5.
By 1990, Ulster Resistance had disappeared from the loyalist paramilitary scene, but the following year, the SDLP issued a call for it to be banned.
A group calling itself ‘Resistance’ briefly emerged in the early 1990s claiming to form part of the Combined Loyalist Military Command, the umbrella group which called the mainstream loyalist ceasefires in late 1994.
Since 1993, there has been considerable speculation Ulster Resistance has given much of its arsenals to UFF and UVF units.
Equally sinister was the whereabouts of the Third Force’s supposedly legal arsenal. Before its official launch in 1981, journalists were taken to a North Antrim hillside where around 500 men waved their firearms certificates for legally held weapons.
The Third Force became later recognised as a DUP recruiting stunt and did little more than parade around loyalist villages and towns, earning it the nickname of the Third Farce in Ulster Unionist quarters.
It was organised on a county basis, claiming a strength of 15,000 to 20,000. Its formation brought warnings from the authorities that private armies would not be tolerated.
Nationalists, too, sharply criticised the Third Force because of the clear implication it had armed itself with legally held guns.
Even today, more than a quarter of a century after its launch, the question is still being posed as to how many surviving Third Force activists still have access to their legally held shotguns, pistols and rifles.