On Saturday, the 25th of May, 1974, at 10:15, Prime Minister Harold Wilson made the biggest mistake of his political career. Wilson made a speech, broadcast across the UK on television & radio, condemning the UWC, Ulster Loyalism & generally insulting the entire Unionist/Loyalist community. Exasperated by the success of the UWC strike & knowing full well that the Sunningdale ‘agreement’ & the unconstitutional ‘Council of Ireland’ was dead in the water, the temperamental & emotionally immature Wilson delivered one of the most counterproductive & ill-advised oratories in the history of British politics. The most inflammatory part of the statement was as follows-
“The people on this side of the water – British parents – have seen their sons vilified and spat upon and murdered. British taxpayers have seen the taxes they have poured out, almost without regard to cost – over £300 million a year this year with the cost of the Army operation on top of that – going into Northern Ireland. They see property destroyed by evil violence and are asked to pick up the bill for rebuilding it. Yet people who benefit from all this now viciously defy Westminster, purporting to act as though they were an elected government; people who spend their lives sponging on Westminster and British democracy and then systematically assault democratic methods. Who do these people think they are?”
Wilson could not have consolidated support for the strike any better if he had tried. Many middle class (small ‘u’) Unionists who had been lukewarm about the strike, were now much more enthusiastic. Working class Loyalists were, for a few hours, incensed. Then however, they began to realise that Wilson’s televised tantrum would do nothing but increase support for the UWC & strengthen support for the Ulster Defence Association. Indeed, in the days & weeks following Wilson’s speech, it is estimated that membership of the UDA went up from around 30,000 to over 40,000. Many Loyalists took to wearing small pieces of sponge on their lapels as a mark of defiance. In June (after the successful conclusion of the UWC strike) the UDA’s ruling Inner Council even went so far as to make Harold Wilson an honorary member of the organisation. Today, nothing gives Loyalists a bigger laugh than when an Irish nationalist or republican attempts to vilify or denigrate the Unionist/Loyalist community by bringing up Wilson’s “Spongers” speech! Despite what some, desperately ill-informed republicans, seem to think, Wilson’s remarks are fondly remembered by Loyalists, who rightly recognise that it was an admission of defeat & an ill-tempered rant that unified & strengthened Loyalism, perhaps more than other event of the 1970s.
Meanwhile, on the streets of Ulster, the strike continued. Passes & permits were issued by the Workers Council, ensuring that people had access to the necessities of daily life. The majority of people stayed away from their jobs or places of business. The Executive, the NIO & the Westminster government continued to scratch their heads, desperately trying to find some method to break the strike.
The UWC issued a communiqué, stating that support for the strike was continuing to grow & that the system of permits was working well in maintaining essential services, particularly the supply of fuel. Across Belfast, the RUC & Army arrested over 200 men in raids in Loyalist areas. The NIO had hoped that these mass arrests would damage the strike, or at least demoralise the strikers in key areas. Once again however, the NIO had made a grave error of judgement. Rather than breaking the spirit of the Loyalist community, the brutal raids (in which at least 12 people were injured & many homes wrecked) arrests & internment of those young men only strengthened the resolve & determination of the community.
Gas supplies to Belfast & other outlying districts were affected by a drop in pressure & a warning was issued that consumers should switch off their supply at the mains. The Army took charge of 21 filling stations throughout Northern Ireland.
The UWC quickly retaliated, announcing that the Army would also have to undertake the supply of all essential services including basics such as bread and milk. The UWC issued a call for workers to stop their assistance in the provision of essential services. The Workers Council also stated that Ballylumford power station, near Larne in Co Antrim, would close at midnight.
Secretary of State, Merlyn Rees, once again refused point blank to meet with the Ulster Workers Council. This proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Executive leader, Brian Faulkner, sought an urgent meeting with Rees & appealed to him not to be so intransigent, but in a display of petulance more befitting a sulky teenager than a high ranking member of government, Rees refused & sent Faulkner packing. Faulkner, left with little alternative, resigned from the Executive, taking his ‘pro-agreement’ Unionist colleagues with him, collapsing the Northern Ireland Executive. Meanwhile, thousands of farmers descended on Stormont, blocking the entrance to Parliament buildings (& most of the Upper Newtownards Road) Even as the farmers gathered at Stormont, news of the collapse of the Executive spread throughout Ulster, sparking wild celebrations in Loyalist & Unionist areas. The Sunningdale diktat was rendered null & void, the so-called ‘Council of Ireland’ was no more, the UWC strike had succeeded, victory was assured.
The following day, Wednesday, the 29th of May, the Ulster Workers Council officially called off the strike & people began to return to work. Although many did not go back to work until after the mass victory rally, held in the grounds of Stormont. The following day, the NI Assembly was prorogued, being officially dissolved on the 29th of March, 1975.
In the days & weeks following the end of the strike, the NIO & Westminster government began to examine what went wrong & how things could have been handled differently. Of course, the unwanted interference of the TUC & the ridiculous televised ramblings of Harold Wilson had not helped (although Len Murray’s pathetic ‘back to work’ march was viewed as little more than a comic distraction by most in Northern Ireland) The real failure of the government had been in underestimating the Loyalist people of Ulster. Even after the strike, some within the NIO could not understand how ‘ordinary Loyalists’ could have organised & run such an effective strike, never mind the essential services required to keep the country from descending into chaos. Some NIO mandarins even went so far as to surmise that the UWC strike marked the birth of “Ulster nationalism” (a statement displaying typical historical ignorance, since Ulster nationalism can trace it’s roots back to at least the 1890s)
Another, often overlooked, aspect of the UWC strike was the fact that during those ’14 May Days’, both the Official & Provisional IRA had been reduced to impotency. On the 2nd day of the strike, two OIRA men had been ambushed & shot dead by the Army as they prepared a landmine at Ballyholland, near Newry, Co Down. That incident aside, neither republican faction carried out any attacks (with the exception of stone throwing & hijacking of private cars) What the NIO & Westminster government should have been looking at carefully, is why that had happened. Of course, it is not easy to carry out terrorist attacks when many roads & streets are blocked, when there is a large Security Force presence & when your enemy (in this instance, the UDA) is out in force on the streets, however, that does not fully explain why the republican murder gangs were so completely neutralised during those 2 weeks. The Official & Provisional IRA factions could still have carried out attacks in exclusively republican areas, south Fermanagh or east Tyrone for example. Without a doubt, Irish nationalism was just as taken aback by the total success of the UWC strike as the NIO & London government. Doubtless too, they had decided, after four years of ruthless terrorist activity, to rest, recuperate & reorganise whilst waiting to see if the government would dare to take on the Loyalist/Unionist community & use force to break the strike. One is left to ponder what might have been. What would the republican godfathers reaction been, if for example, the government had decided to fully commit the Army to breaking the strike & Loyalists had reacted violently, attacking British soldiers? There are numerous other ‘what ifs’. What we do know though, is that from 1974 onwards, neither the government nor Irish nationalism could afford to underestimate Loyalism. As Vanguard leader William Craig said at the time: “The Unionist dog can bark, but the Unionist dog also has teeth”. Those teeth were bared in May, 1974 & sent the government, the SDLP, Faulkner, the Alliance party & both factions of the IRA, running for cover. The Enemies of Ulster would really like the world to forget that the UWC strike ever happened, they’d love to simply dismiss it or to sweep it under the rug. Unfortunately for them though, Loyalism has a long memory. Finally, I would like to offer this advice to Loyalism’s opponents, “He who does not know his history is doomed to repeat it”, something to think about whilst you try to whitewash the recent history of Northern Ireland!