Northern Ireland

Ulster Workers Council Strike: ‘An exceptional and vibrant time’

‘There was a sense of young people taking possession of politics, that the older people were disconnected’ – Gregory Campbell

UWC strike
Gregory Campbell, who described the UWC strike as an 'exceptional and vibrant' time

East Derry MP Gregory Campbell was 21 at the time of the Ulster Workers’ Council Strike.

Speaking to The Irish News, he vividly described the events of 50 years ago.

“In one community, you had some people who recall years later there was a vibrancy. We were out on the streets. There was ‘what’s going to happen next?’ There was a sense of young people taking possession of politics, that the older people were disconnected.

“Every day you were out, and you were on the streets, and you were carrying flags, and you were going to protests and it was just an exceptional time. There seemed to be a sense of massive change in the air, and you were being part of it.”

UWC strike
Loyalist leaders on the steps of Stormont after the meeting are (from left) Reverand Ian Paisley MP, Lawrence Orr MP, and William Craig, the Vanguard leader

Analysing the causes of the strike, Mr Campbell said: “It was a case of unionism in leadership mode, getting very much departed from the roots of unionism.

“Unionist leaders like Brian Faulkner and others at the time, thought unionism was amenable to what they saw as something that would have an inevitability about going towards a united Ireland.

“Faulkner didn’t appreciate the strength of feeling that was in the unionist community about where it was going. He thought he could manage the whole power-sharing thing in Stormont and the business of unionists and nationalists sitting in government together.

“He thought he could convince the unionist electorate that there was nothing more to it than that. If he could do that, that was sufficient to keep people on board.

“But he didn’t appreciate the strength of feeling there was in the wider unionist community. There was an infamous comment made by an SDLP member at the time that Sunningdale’s proposed Council of Ireland was ‘the vehicle that would trundle Unionists into a united Ireland’.”

Mr Campbell said this remark had put unionist reservations about the “whole scheme into overdrive”.

He added: “There was a misunderstanding, in some cases deliberate, in nationalism, that unionism had a complete reservation, if not opposition to simply sharing power in Northern Ireland, when in fact, it was the Hugh Logue interpretation of what that meant was the huge anathema.”

UWC strike
Ian Paisley addresses supporters in the Shankill Road area of Belfast in May 1974 as the mass protests during the Ulster Workers' Council strike

Of the current political dispensation, Mr Campbell said having gone through the UWC Strike, the feeling was: “Let’s manage where we are. Let’s take it a step at a time. And if that’s a year at a time and a generation at a time, let’s do that, but it’s better than what we had 30 or 40 years ago.”