THE 1974 ULSTER WORKERS STRIKE
By DAVID KERR
IN March 1972, Ted Heath's Tory government tried to appease the IRA and their allies by abolishing the Northern Ireland Parliament. At a stroke Ulster's democratically elected government was replaced by an unelected dictator ― Mr. William Whitelaw.
Whitelaw carried on with the Tory policy of appeasing Ulster's enemies. He snubbed loyalist representatives but took part in secret talks with the Eire government, the SDLP and the IRA. Two top Provos, Gerry Adams and David O'Connell were flown over to England in an RAF aircraft to meet him.
In 1973, a Green Paper was published which sought to accommodate the desires of republicans by institutionalising an 'Irish Dimension' in Ulster's government. Elections were held for a new Assembly. The Official Unionist Party won 24 seats, the republican SDLP won 19 and the liberal Alliance Party 8. Labour won only one seat and the combined Loyalist groups won 26.
Whitelaw began his discussions with the leaders of the OUP, the SDLP, and Alliance, (Messrs Faulkner, Fitt and Cooper) and the Dublin government which led to the signing of the notorious Sunningdale Agreement that December. In spite of the fact that he won his Assembly seat by promising that he would never sit down in government with 'those whose primary aim was to break the Union', former Prime Minister Brian Faulkner agreed to do just that! He also agreed to the establishment of a 'Council of Ireland' which would have given Eire a large say in the running of Ulster's affairs. The Dublin government solemnly declared that there could be no change in Ulster's status as part of the UK until a majority desired a change and the British government said the same, except that they would not stand in the way of a United Ireland if Ulster's people wanted it.
Eighty per-cent of the Sunningdale Agreement was about the Council of Ireland, in effect Unionist concessions to the SDLP and Dublin. The only concession made by the republicans was their apparent recognition of Ulster's right to be part of the UK.
In Dublin, Kevin Boland, a former Cabinet Minister and a fervent Provo supporter, took the Cosgrave government to High Court on the grounds that the Eire Constitution laid claim to Ulster and therefore the recognition of Ulster's status as part of the UK was illegal. Boland lost his case. The judge ruled that the Agreement did acknowledge that Ulster was part of the UK but that the paragraph concerned was no more than a policy statement. In other words the Sunningdale Agreement did not mean what it appeared to say. All it really meant was that the Cosgrave regime had taken the policy decision not to enforce Eire's claim on the North against its people's will.
Faulkner tried to sell the Sunningdale package to the Ulster Unionist Council, his party executive body. It was overwhelmingly rejected. He and his associates resigned and formed a new party, the UPNI. The purged OUP joined with the two other loyalist parties to form the United Ulster Unionist Coalition to oppose the Sunningdale sell-out.
Ordinary Loyalists who had welcomed Dublin's apparent change of heart and who were willing to give the power-sharing Executive a chance realised that they had been conned. Ulster was seen to be in a state of transition from full British sovereignty to full Eire sovereignty.
In February 1974, a Westminster General Election gave the UUUC a sweeping victory. Campaigning on the slogan, 'Dublin is only a Sunningdale away', the Loyalist coalition won eleven of the twelve Ulster seats. The new Executive ignored this massive rejection of Sunningdale by the electorate and tried to carry on as if nothing had happened.
In Britain, Labour's Harold Wilson became Prime Minister. He sent two fervent supporters of a United Ireland to Ulster, Merlyn Rees and Stanley Orme. They decided to press on with the Council of Ireland, acting in cahoots with the Tories to freeze the Loyalist MPs out of Westminster and preventing them from exploiting their parliamentary strength. Parliament was determined to ignore the will of the Ulster electorate so the electorate was forced into enforcing its will by extra-parliamentary means.
In April, the Ulster Workers' Council met Rees and demanded new Assembly elections and an end to the Council of Ireland. He refused, thus setting the stage for the Constitutional Stoppage.
The UWC was a group of loyalist trade union activists which was organised in all the key industries throughout Ulster. They represented the political views of loyalist workers in a way that the official TU leadership could not. The leaders of the Dublin based Irish Congress of Trade Unions were mainly anti-partitionists and communists.
On May 14, the Assembly met to ratify the Sunningdale Agreement. The UWC placed a notice in the morning paper warning that a strike would begin that evening if Faulkner voted to support Sunningdale. The call was denounced as 'political' by the ICTU and the local branch of the CBI. Faulkner ignored the UWC call and the unrepresentative Assembly voted 44 to 28 in favour of Sunningdale. The strike was on!
The attitude of Rees and Orme was to denounce the strike as 'political blackmail' and 'thuggery'. They accused the UWC of holding Ulster to ransom and massive intimidation. They also refused to have any dealings with UWC representatives. As the strike bit, all loyalist areas were blocked off by sympathetic local loyalists. The UWC took full control of all essential services while Rees and the Executive fumed on the sidelines. After some dithering and initial reservations on the part of some loyalists the population swung solidly behind the strike. Rees declared an official state of Emergency as the crisis for the Executive deepened.
In a pathetic attempt to break the strike called by the Ulster Workers' Council, Len Murray ― the then Secretary of the T.U.C. ― led a 'back-to-work' march into the Belfast shipyards. The two hundred Marxist and Republican scabs that joined him were so 'popular' with the working class that they had to be protected from women workers by a wedge-shaped formation of armed troops and police.
The ICTU, apparently believing the government lie that the strike was only biting because of massive intimidation decided to organise scab 'Back to Work' marches. The British TUC leader, Len Murray was invited to lead the main march which was given heavy police and army protection. Murray's intervention was welcomed by CBI boss Sir Robin Kinaham and the rightist pressure group 'Aims of Industry' praised his courage and integrity.
Murray's scab march was a fiasco as only 150 people turned up to march to the Shipyard. Half of them were professional 'peace campaigners' and clergymen. For his pains Murray was pelted with eggs and tomatoes by crowds of screaming loyalist women.
The response of the Executive and the government became more hysterical. Faulkner hypocritically attacked the UWC as 'faceless men' who hadn't the courage to argue their views and to accept the democratic will of the people in the way he did! The SDLP leader, a supposed 'Conolly Socialist', demanded that Rees send in British troops to break the strike.
A rattled Rees launched a bitter attack on Ian Paisley, accusing him of setting up a Provisional Government. Cosgrave, the Eire MP echoed Fitt's call for troops to be sent in to smash the 'anarchy' of the strike, 'no matter what it cost'.
The Executive was in tatters, hopelessly split between the hardliners like Seamus Mallon who wanted the Council of Ireland implemented at once and soft-pedallers like Roy Bradford who suggested talking to the UWC. On the ninth day of the strike, the Executive announced that the full Council of Ireland proposals would be deferred until 1977. This stalling attempt did not succeed in ending the Strike.
TORRENT OF ABUSE
On May 25, Harold Wilson personally intervened in the growing crisis by making a nationwide television broadcast. Wilson launched a petulant torrent of abuse against the loyalist people of Ulster and the UWC. he spoke of 'people on this side of the water ― British parents', who had seen their soldier sons 'vilified and spat upon and murdered' and of British taxpayers picking up the bill for repairing 'property destroyed by evil violence' without once mentioning the fact that all this was the IRA's work. He continued his hate-filled diatribe by abusing the strikers for viciously defying Westminster, sponging on British democracy and systematically assaulting democratic methods. He demanded, 'Who do these people think they are?' and promised to give military aid to shore up the crumbling Executive.
The next day, furious loyalists demonstrated in the streets of Ulster's towns, many contemptuously sporting pieces of sponge on their lapels. The army was sent into the Belfast oil refinery and also took over several petrol stations, in some areas arresting local strike leaders. In retaliation the UWC pulled out of all essential services and began to shut down the entire electricity grid, all gas services and the sewage system. The army were rendered helpless and Ulster became totally ungovernable.
Faced with this fact, Faulkner belatedly decided to talk to the UWC. This was not acceptable to his republican colleagues in the SDLP. Faulkner and his 'Unionist' colleagues resigned and the Executive collapsed. When the news broke there were imprompt victory celebrations all over Ulster. After sixteen days the strike was called off. The loyalist workers and farmers of Ulster had won ― their's was the only successful general strike in British history. The strike demonstrated that the much discussed 'Loyalist Veto' is not a paper guarantee from the British government but the Loyalist people's resolve to have nothing to do with a United Ireland.