The effect of the strike deepened with the engineering sector being hardest hit. The strike began to have a huge effect on agriculture, with uncollected or unprocessed milk having to be dumped & fresh food not reaching shops. The UWC issued a list of ‘essential services’ which were to be allowed to operate as normal & also issued a telephone number for anyone engaged in such work. All pubs & licensed premises were ordered to close, in order to minimise any risk of public disorder.
In many areas across Northern Ireland, the RUC & Army moved in to remove barricades. Loyalists criticised the Security Forces, accusing them of heavy handedness (some RUC officers were accused, not without foundation, of outright thuggery) Meanwhile, Irish nationalists & ‘liberal’ Unionists accused the police & Army of not doing enough to break the strike, with the SDLP being most vocal, urging the Army to “sweep these Loyalist rabble-rousers off the streets”.
Merlyn Rees, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, met with Unionist leaders at Stormont, controversially however, Rees categorically refused to meet with, or enter into discussions with, the Ulster Workers Council.
As the effects of the strike began to bite harder, major disruption was caused to daily life in NI. Petrol supplies began to dry up & further electricity cuts meant that even when filling stations had fuel, they were often unable to operate their pumps. Postal delivery services came to a halt. The problems with food distribution began to become more serious & widespread. Special arrangements were made by the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that welfare & pension payments would be delivered to claimants. Vanguard leader, William Craig, launched a scathing attack on Merlyn Rees for refusing to meet with strike leaders. A sentiment echoed by the Conservative Party’s Northern Ireland spokesman, Francis Pym. Meanwhile, news broke of the Dublin/Monaghan bombs & the terrible loss of life. Sadly, many Loyalists, desensitised by 4 years of indiscriminate republican bombings of civilian targets, actually greeted the news with cheers. With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see that the bombing of civilian targets in the Irish Republic was counterproductive for Loyalism, at the time however, many ordinary Loyalists regarded such attacks as entirely justified. Indeed, the UVF may well have considered the attacks justifiable, as a graphic demonstration of Loyalist resistance to the hated ‘Council of Ireland’ component of Sunningdale. Today, it is easy to see things through the lens of contemporary morality, but that is an unhelpful perspective. Of course it is morally wrong to cheer the violent death of any person, but in the context of NI in 1974, such cheers were only to be expected. Similar behaviour was demonstrated by both communities in subsequent years, though of course, one never hears the anecdotes about republicans cheering when, for example, the bomb exploded in Frizzell’s fish shop on the Shankill Road in 1993.
The Ulster Workers’ Council issued a statement calling for an all-out stoppage to begin at midnight on Sunday. More & more shops & businesses closed as the strike began to gather more & more momentum. Merlyn Rees again came in for fierce criticism, as he once again refused point-blank to meet with the UWC.
Merlyn Rees, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, announces a State of Emergency. Rees flew to Chequers, country home of the Prime Minister, for talks. The United Ulster Unionist Council met & agreed to support the Ulster Workers’ Council. The UWC withdrew its call for a total stoppage as of midnight, as some shops reported panic buying & the RUC issued dire warnings of “severe consequences” of an all out stoppage.
The UDA’s Glenn Barr addressing a rally in support of the strike, Irish St, Londonderry.
Many roads across Ulster were closed by Loyalist strikers, these road closures were so effective that some members of the Executive, including Brian Faulkner, had to be airlifted in & out of Stormont by the RAF. Electricity generation dropped to about one-third of normal levels. People were asked only to use telephones in an emergency. Five hundred additional troops arrived in Northern Ireland.
A revised list of those services which were to be allowed through roadblocks & the opening times permitted for shops was issued by the ‘Ulster Army Council’. TUC leader, Len Murray, arrives in Belfast to lead a ‘back to work march’.
THE ‘BACK TO WORK’ FIASCO
One would have assumed that the Trades Union Congress would have expressed support for striking workers, especially those striking in order to overturn an undemocratic & unpopular government diktat, but no, the TUC instead took the ridiculous decision to send their General Secretary, Len Murray, to Belfast to lead a ‘back to work’ march & attempt to break the strike. The march was supported by leading local Trade Union officials & was also attended by certain prominent republicans, including several senior OIRA & PIRA members, although in total, less than 150 people turned up to support the march. A group of Loyalists, almost entirely women, had gathered to voice their disapproval. The marchers didn’t take their rebuke well, shouting sectarian abuse at the women (Len Murray is
alleged to have called one woman an “Orange whore”) One senior north Belfast republican (now a member of Provisional Sinn Fein) appeared to take great pleasure in spitting at the protesters. The women, outraged by this abuse, surged forward & were only prevented from reaching the
hate-filled marchers by around 200 RUC personnel (who outnumbered the marchers!) The farcical affair came to end when the marchers finally moved off, though they were so disheartened (& probably embarrassed) that they didn’t even bother to complete their proposed route! Another ‘back to work’ march due to start at Cregagh Industrial Estate, attracted only 17 people.
In an attempt to resolve the strike the Northern Ireland Executive agreed to postpone certain sections of the Sunningdale ‘Agreement’ until 1977 & to reduce the size of the ‘Council of Ireland’. These proposals were rejected by leaders of the Ulster Workers’ Council & other Loyalist leaders. The Westminster government repeated their stance on not negotiating with the UWC.
The Army moved in to remove barricades in Loyalist areas across NI, though most were replaced soon after. Workers in Londonderry were prevented from getting to Maydown Industrial Estate. Although many schools managed to operate during the strike it was reported that some GCE examinations were affected. Gerry Fitt, ‘Deputy Chief Executive’, called on the government to send troops to the power stations and the oil refineries.
A UDA vehicle checkpoint, East Belfast.
Talks were held at Chequers, involving: Harold Wilson, Brian Faulkner, Gerry Fitt & Alliance party leader Oliver Napier. A terse statement was issued after the talks stated that there would be no negotiations with the strike organisers. By now, the role of government had been so usurped by the UWC that many government departments took to counterfeiting UWC passes & petrol coupons, something that quickly came to the notice of the strike organisers, who simply changed the paper to another colour.
The fact that the UWC was able to react so quickly to the counter initiatives from Stormont led people to believe that there were Loyalist/Unionist spies inside Stormont. There were -including a member of the Executive, Roy Bradford. When the Executive decided that the Army should be used to distribute fuel from the oil refinery, the strikers were ready & the refinery workers were already on their way out the gate when the soldiers arrived.
PART 3(FINAL PART) SOON