Police had evidence that Ian Paisley supplied the money for at least one of the first bombs of the Troubles, a former Army colonel has said.
The future First Minister, who in the mid-1960s was a hardline cleric leading street protests, was involved in the bombing of water infrastructure in Co Down, retired Colonel David Hancock said.
The former soldier, who was in the Army’s small Northern Ireland garrison at the time, said that he had been shown the evidence by the local RUC inspector.
At the time, it was widely assumed - and Dr Paisley’s Protestant Telegraph newspaper pushed the idea - that the bombings were the work of the IRA and the liberal policies of the then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Terence O’Neill, who was forced from office in the wake of the attacks.
The bombing campaign began in March 1969 and was to critically undermine the already weakened O’Neill. Explosions targeted electrical and water infrastructure, with the IRA being widely believed to have been responsible.
Few thought that loyalists would attack their own state, but that was in fact what was going on in an elaborate false flag operation by the UVF aimed at removing the Northern Ireland Prime Minister - a desire shared by Dr Paisley.
One of the first explosions was at the Silent Valley reservoir. Colonel Hancock was at that time part of the permanent Army garrison in Northern Ireland and was stationed nearby.
He told BBC Spotlight: “My memory is that April ‘69 there was a loud bang in Silent Valley. We heard it and then the British Army was deployed to guard vulnerable points.
“I think it was a week later and I was lying in bed and ‘bang’. I said to my wife ‘that’s Annalong viaduct gone’ and they’d blown up Annalong viaduct.
“The IRA immediately got the blame. But it did not have the footprint of the IRA.”
At the end of April, O’Neill resigned.
Colonel Hancock, an officer in The Light Infantry, said: “I was good friends with the district inspector down in Kilkeel and he showed me the evidence that they had of the involvement of money from Paisley into what was then called the UVF, where they got the explosives from, how it was carried out, who did it and why.
“My memory is very clear from what the district inspector in Kilkeel told me...Paisley had supplied the money that financed the Kilkeel explosion.”
Dr Paisley, who was in jail for another public order offence when the bombs went off, always denied that he had done anything to actively encourage terrorism, arguing that anyone who had been inspired by his fiery rhetoric and gone on to use violence had done so against his wishes.
Spotlight also reveals a previously classified government document which shows that from 1966, Mr O’Neill had the police record Dr Paisley’s speeches and sermons in their entirety with the intention of prosecuting him for inciting opposition to the Stormont government.
A police intelligence report into “the Paisleyite movement” listed a number of organisations which the RUC believed were directly linked to Dr Paisley, including “a secret militant wing, the Ulster Volunteer Force”, something Paisley always denied.
Dr Paisley’s bodyguard, Samuel Stevenson, secretly met nationalist politician Austin Currie in late 1969 to warn him that the bombing campaign was going to be renewed.
Mr Currie told Spotlight: “This man that I met said that they were responsible for those explosions that was supported by Paisley...he then went on to say that they would take action in the Free State and he told me that an electricity pylon at Ballyshannon would be blown....the following weekend.
“And he also told me that he was supposed to go but he would try to get out of it but certainly that one of them would be Thomas McDowell of Kilkeel.”
Days later, McDowell electrocuted himself while attempting to bomb the electricity installation, dying several days later after suffering extensive burns.
McDowell is buried behind a Free Presbyterian Church and commemorated as a member of Paisley’s Ulster Protestant Volunteers.
The Rev Ivan Foster, a former DUP Assemblyman and a former Free Presbyterian minister, said: “I have no doubt that men who came together maybe to form the UVF would have been under the influence or been in contact with the general witness and stand of our protest against O’Neill and all the rest of it.
“But if they decided to put the views that we were expressing into actions of their own, that’s not our fault. They were wrong. They were wrong. Somebody deceived them into thinking that what they were doing was right.”
Dr Paisley himself accepted that the bombers were in his organisations, but later said: “I can’t be responsible for everybody who is a member of church that I pastor or an organisation which I lead.”
Sir Ken Bloomfield, who even at that point was an important civil servant in Terence O’Neill’s government but would go on to become head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, said: “I and many others at the time underestimated him.
“We just thought this is a big noisy booming cleric, you know, and it’s a flash in the pan.”