Northern Ireland

Authorities fatally underestimated strength of Ulster Workers’ Council strike

Continuing a three-part series about the Ulster Workers’ Council strike, which brought down the Sunningdale power-sharing executive 50 years ago, Alex Kane recalls the first week of confrontation and the impact of the devastating loyalist bomb attacks in Dublin and Monaghan

UWC strike
There was an expectation that the Ulster Workers' Council strike would follow the pattern of previous short-lived protests since the NI Parliament was closed in 1972, such as a barricade manned by UDA members in June that year. Picture: David Lomax/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images (David Lomax/Getty Images)

At 7am on May 15 1974, the first day of the Ulster Workers’ Council strike, four-hourly power cuts began across Northern Ireland. By lunchtime several factories, including Mackies, the Sirocco Works, Rolls Royce, ICI and Courtaulds, had closed because of lack of power.

At Harland and Wolff’s shipyard, 3,000 men voted to support the strike and the entire workforce left. Coal supplies to power stations began to run down fairly quickly and at Ballylumford a total shutdown was only avoided when the UWC reached an agreement with the NI electricity service.

Twenty-four hours after the announcement of the stoppage – following a vote in the Assembly to endorse Sunningdale – it was clear that both the UWC and United Ulster Unionist Coalition (with support from the UDA and UVF) were much better organised than the Executive, NIO and security forces had been led to believe.

Overnight there was still an expectation that the strike would be the usual half-hearted, rhetoric-fuelled, one-day event which had been seen a few times since the NI Parliament was closed in March 1972.

But that afternoon it was clear that this was something not seen before.

Brian Faulkner condemned it in a statement: “The Northern Ireland public is against being made the target of irresponsible extremists who abuse the freedom of the press and television to make the most reckless pronouncements to the public without regard to the consequences.”

Ulster Unionist leader Brian Faulkner
Ulster Unionist leader Brian Faulkner

William Craig, leader of Vanguard and a key player in the UUUC, responded: “So, Mr Faulkner accuses us of abusing the freedom of the media to make our point. Is that because he doesn’t want to remind unionists that the Executive he chairs was rejected by a huge majority of unionists and an overall majority of voters at the general election? He is the enemy of democracy. He is the extremist, not us.”

Realising the scale of what it was facing, the UK Government tried a different approach. Speaking in the House of Commons on the 16th, the Secretary of State, Merlyn Rees, addressed the UWC and UUUC directly: “Your loyalism will lead you to come up against British troops. I regret there has been a great deal of intimidation. When factory meetings were held, in some cases the vote was not decisive. But intimidation afterwards by gangs keeps the strike together. It is a political strike, not an industrial one.”

UWC strike
Secretary of State Merlyn Rees

Yet it was always intended to be a political strike; a strike based on the electoral fact that the UUUC had won 11 of the 12 parliamentary seats in Northern Ireland and had, in terms of overall votes, a mandate to reject Faulkner and Sunningdale. They had never claimed it was an industrial strike, even though it was borrowing some of the tactics that the TUC had used to force Edward Heath into a three-day week and the ‘Who Governs Britain’ election. Indeed, these were the very tactics the Labour Party had supported when the TUC was rejecting Heath’s anti-TUC legislation months earlier in GB.

Rees’s response, along with the NI Executive, was based on having been taken by surprise by the organisation behind the strike. Yes, there was clearly intimidation, but equally clearly there was also widespread support; and not just in unionist/loyalist working class areas.

Whatever Rees and Faulkner (and his SDLP/Alliance colleagues) thought of the strike, it was a serious tactical error to talk about increasing troop numbers while ignoring the results of the general election. All that approach did was broaden the support across all sections of unionism.

On Friday May 17, the national and international headlines were dominated by another story. Without warning, three bombs exploded in Dublin’s busiest streets at the height of evening rush hour, followed by another one outside a bar in Monaghan. Thirty-three people and an unborn child were killed and over 250 injured.

The aftermath of the second Dublin bomb, which exploded on Talbot Street at 5.31pm, just three minutes after the first attack in Parnell Street
The aftermath of the second Dublin bomb, which exploded on Talbot Street just three minutes after the first attack in Parnell Street

The UDA and UVF denied responsibility although, in 1993, the UVF did, finally, admit liability. Sammy Smyth, a UDA press officer and UWC member, responded: “I am very happy about the bombings in Dublin. There is a war with the Free State and now we are laughing at them.” It was a frightful response, yet he remained in post.

But what purpose was served by the UVF attacks? They were clearly planned well in advance of the strike. Was it to pressurise the Irish government into backing away from the Council of Ireland? Was it to force the IRA to retaliate? Was it sending a message to the UK Government that loyalism was prepared to and capable of taking the war to the south?

Sammy Smyth, a UDA press officer and UWC member, responded: ‘I am very happy about the bombings in Dublin. There is a war with the Free State and now we are laughing at them’

Was it to scare Faulkner and force some of his assembly group to turn tail and back the UUUC? Was it a UVF solo run or was there, as some evidence suggests, support from elements of the UK security forces (and if so, to what end)?

What effect would it have on the political/electoral elements who had been supporting the strike, including the UUP, DUP and Vanguard: would it break the coalition? Would the public turn their backs on the strike?

Vanguard leader William Craig addresses a rally with a loudspeaker outside Belfast City Hall with a crowd waving flags
Vanguard leader William Craig addresses a rally outside Belfast City Hall. Picture: Keystone/Getty Images (Keystone/Getty Images)

The first test of public reaction came on May 21, with a ‘back-to-work’ march in Belfast headed by TUC General Secretary Len Murray. Whether the government and executive hoped that thousands would turn out, signalling a collapse in support for the strike, I don’t know; yet only around 200 people joined in. William Craig dismissed it as a flop, adding: “The government will have to negotiate. The workers have made it quite clear that they are not going to relax the pressure. The government has recklessly ignored the will of the people. The Executive does not count for anything at all now.”

The first week ended with both sides in eye-to-eye, toe-to-toe confrontation. The government still insisted it was a ‘political’ strike, yet seemed surprised that the politicians were standing firm. Former prime minister Edward Heath described it as a “sectarian strike aimed at destroying decisions taken by this House”.

The Ulster Workers’ Council said it would up the ante if new elections weren’t called. Something would have to give. A few days later, it did.