With the centenary of the UVF’s Operation Lion this year, it was perhaps inevitable that the 40th anniversary of the UWC strike would receive little attention. However, those 14 days in May, 1974, are no less worthy of commemoration. Ulster Loyalism, unified & determined, took decisive action against an undemocratic & flawed ‘agreement’, took control of their own destiny (& of much of Northern Ireland) sent out a clear message of defiance & ensured that the principle of consent would have to be enshrined in any future agreement. Detractors will, of course, say that the UWC strike was merely a matter of UDA intimidation & a weak government giving in to the rabble. An almost comical (& absurdly reductionist) view of history, proffered by those who often dismiss the UDA as being mere ‘corner boys’ & thugs. Of course, they cannot have it both ways. Either the UDA were, indeed, amateurish thugs, or, they were a sophisticated mass movement, capable of bringing industry & commerce in NI to a grinding halt, & thus bringing down a government. Real history though, is far less monochromatic. Yes, the UDA were intimately involved in the strike, but it was not the UDA that smashed the Sunningdale ‘Agreement’ into a thousand pieces, it was the Loyalist & Unionist body politic.
THE COMING STORM
In March, 1973, the government published a White Paper, outlining plans for a Northern Ireland Assembly to replace the illegally prorogued Northern Ireland Parliament, dismissed, in spite of popular local opposition, in 1972. This proposed Assembly would be elected by proportional representation with 78 members sitting at Stormont. In addition to having a power-sharing executive the White Paper also proposed a ‘Council of Ireland’, suspected by many Loyalists as being a device with which the UK government would deliver NI into a unitary, all-island, Irish republic. In June of that year the Assembly elections took place & on Tuesday, 31st July, the Assembly meet for the first time.
Ulster had been ravaged by 4 years of bloody, internecine conflict. The Left-wing Official IRA & the more sectarian & nationalistic Provisional IRA, had bombed the commercial heart out of Belfast. Murders & gun attacks were commonplace. Explosions had occurred in every corner of NI. The Loyalist tactic of defeating the OIRA & PIRA by removing their support base was ineffective, the killing of ordinary members of the Irish nationalist/republican community having little effect on the leadership of either republican organisation. In desperation, the government looked for some form of political agreement which might, possibly, undermine support for the OIRA & the Provos, create some type of political consensus, & maybe bring about peace.
On the 21st of November, 1973, the UUP, SDLP & Alliance parties reached agreement on the formation of a ‘power-sharing’ NI Executive. A few days later, at the beginning of December, a conference was held in Sunningdale, Berkshire, England. The so-called ‘Sunningdale Agreement’ set the parameters of the ‘Irish dimension’ in the government of Northern Ireland. It also laid the foundations of the crisis which was to come.
ULSTER GIVES HER ANSWER
By the end of January, 1974, the Unionist party’s internal divisions could no longer be contained, the anti-Sunningdale majority, led by Harry West, triumphed & former leader Brian Faulkner (who was also now head of the new NI Executive) walked away from the party, forming his own (much smaller) pro-Sunningdale, Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.
On the 28th of February, 1974, Westminster elections took place across the United Kingdom. In Ulster, the election became, essentially, a referendum on the Sunningdale ‘agreement’ & the hated ‘Council of Ireland’. The result was unambiguous, with 11 of the 12 NI constituencies electing Unionist & anti-Sunningdale candidates (the remaining seat going to the SDLP)
Of course, the will of the people, democratically expressed at the ballot box, was ignored, both by the Westminster government & by the new Northern Ireland Executive. On the 14th of May, a motion was debated in the assembly, condemning the ‘Council of Ireland’ & the so-called agreement concluded at Sunningdale. The motion was defeated by 44 votes to 28 (the assembly being made up, almost by default, of pro-Sunningdale members) At 6.00pm, following the conclusion of the Assembly debate, Harry Murray announced to a group of journalists that a general strike was to start the following day. Thus, the dye had been cast. In the face of the assembly’s flagrant disregard of popular opinion & the Westminster government’s apparent disdain for normal democratic processes in Ulster, the Unionist/Loyalist community was left with little other option but to attempt to force the government’s hand. The Ulster Workers Council, the organising body of the proposed strike, issued a statement saying: “The UWC are determined that the Government shall not ignore the will of the majority of the people as to the form of Government or the Sunningdale agreement. The attitude of Government has made a nonsense of political action. The Workers have resolved to make an all out effort to bring about a change” No one could have predicted at the time, the seismic shift that was about to take place within Loyalist/Unionist politics, the astounding events which were about to take place, or the ramifications those events would have, not only in the short term but for generations yet to come.
Initially the response to the strike was relatively poor. Many, unsure of how such an action could be successful, choose to go to work as normal. However, following a number of Workers meetings, hastily convened in offices, factories & engineering works across the country, people began to leave work in ever greater numbers. That evening the port of Larne was seized by local Loyalists & sealed off to all traffic. A large number of roads had been blocked in every county & in Belfast buses were hijacked & used as mobile barriers. Electricity supplies were disrupted, with rotating four hourly blackouts across NI. These power cuts forced many factories (those that remained open) to close & send their workforce home. The UWC moved to calm fears of food shortages by issuing a statement assuring the delivery of “all essential services”. For the doubters & naysayers who had confidently predicted that the strike would come to nothing, Wednesday, the 15th of May, 1974, proved to be something of an eye-opener!
PART 2 WILL FOLLOW LATER THIS WEEK!