Alex Kane: The day Sunningdale fell and the dog caught the moving car

In the final part of his series about the Ulster Workers’ Council strike, which forced the collapse of the power-sharing executive 50 years ago today, Alex Kane says unionism has been paying for the consequences of its ‘victory’ ever since

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is an Irish News columnist and political commentator and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

UWC strike
Women and children in east Belfast react to the news that the power-sharing executive had collapsed in May 1974 (PA/PA)

By the end of the first week of the Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC) strike, on May 22 1974, an impasse had been reached. The power-sharing executive couldn’t govern.

The UWC and UUUC (United Ulster Unionist Coalition) had proved themselves much better organised than had been expected. The security forces and RUC maintained what amounted to a low key watching brief. There was little evidence of a kickback from either mainstream unionism or working-class loyalism. And Secretary of State Merlyn Rees didn’t go much further than exasperated, helpless platitude in the House of Commons.

So, in what amounted to an extraordinarily bold move – one which involved huge political/electoral risks for the SDLP – the power-sharing executive issued a statement which rolled back on the originally agreed roll-out of the Council of Ireland.

Phase one, the setting up of the Council of Ministers, would still happen immediately, but only on the basis of ‘complete unanimity’ between the executive and Irish government. Phase two, the Council of Ireland itself, would happen only after “a test of the opinion of the electorate” at the assembly election scheduled for 1977/78.

This strategy might have worked had it been part of the December 1973 Sunningdale Agreement, or incorporated into Brian Faulkner’s amendment to the executive motion on May 14 (the passing of which triggered the strike).

But at this point it was too late. Harry West, leader of the UUUC, dismissed it as a phasing-in operation; while the UWC rejected the Sunningdale Agreement in “whatever modifications it might assume”.

One thing was clear: having won – and then rejected – a significant concession, the UUUC/UWC was going to intensify the push to bring down Faulkner, the entirety of Sunningdale and power-sharing devolution. The impasse continued.

UWC strike
(l/r) Ulster Unionist leader Brian Faulkner, Secretary of State Willie Whitelaw, Oliver Napier of the Alliance Party and the SDLP's Gerry Fitt, pictured in 1973 (PA/PA)

There was, of course, the possibility of the British government instructing the army, with RUC support, to break the strike. Indeed, the option was discussed on Friday May 24 at a meeting in Chequers with Harold Wilson, Brian Faulkner, Gerry Fitt, Oliver Napier and Defence Secretary Roy Mason; and discussed later that day at a special meeting of the Cabinet. Crucially, though, it was also confirmed that Wilson would make a nation-wide broadcast the following day.

The broadcast – in which Wilson lashed out at “people who spend their lives sponging on Westminster and British democracy and then systematically assault democratic methods”, adding: “Who do these people think they are?” – effectively handed victory to the UWC/UUUC.

Faulkner, who had been sent the text of the speech on Saturday lunchtime, asked Wilson and Rees to remove the reference to ‘sponging’, along with a few other things.

“When the recorded broadcast went out at 9pm some of my objections had been met, but the sponging section remained. Immense damage had been done by Wilson’s broadcast, which had brought out provincial feeling against him and vastly increased popular support for the strike. During the next few days strike supporters were proudly displaying small pieces of sponge pinned on their lapels.”

Labour Party Leader Harold Wilson pictured in 1974
Labour Party Leader Harold Wilson hit out at "people who spend their lives sponging on Westminster and British democracy and then systematically assault democratic methods", added: "Who do these people think they are?" (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

I’ve often wondered if Wilson was being deliberately provocative or if he was actually bringing the impasse to an end quickly and without the complete collapse of stability if the strike carried on. He must have known the impact his words would have; not only on the UUUC/UWC, but also on the Executive parties. How could he not know that he had made their position impossible? They couldn’t agree with him, without making the existing impasse much worse; and they couldn’t disagree with him without locking themselves into a furious showdown with the British government.

And quite apart from that, the impact of the strike was continuing to take a heavy toll. Writing in his Memoirs Of A Statesman, Faulkner noted the aftermath of a meeting of permanent secretaries on Monday May 27: “It was a very black report indeed as they pointed out how hospitals might soon have to stop functioning, and how if the sewage pumps stopped working there was a real possibility of raw sewage flooding the streets of low-lying parts of Belfast. It was an entirely factual report, but it brought home to me more graphically than ever before the dire situation in our province.”

It was over for the executive. Suggestions that it might ‘communicate’ with the strikers were rejected by the SDLP and there was no agreement on other options either. Just after 2pm on May 28, Merlyn Rees confirmed that Faulkner and the unionist ministers had resigned.

Ulster Unionist leader Brian Faulkner and SDLP leader Gerry Fitt at a table, looking at each other
Ulster Unionist leader Brian Faulkner and SDLP leader Gerry Fitt led the north's first power-sharing government in 1974. Picture: Tim Graham/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

The Assembly met for 25 minutes at 2.30pm and in his final contribution, Gerry Fitt said: “We in the SDLP have been concerned throughout the whole of our existence about the future of every man, woman and child in Northern Ireland, irrespective of their religion. We will stay, and if we are forced out of office we will come back and fight that battle all over again.”

I wonder if Seamus Mallon had those words in mind when he talked of “Sunningdale for slow learners” over two decades later.

The strike was over. The dog had caught the moving car but, as history has demonstrated, it didn’t know how to drive it, let alone know how to get to where it wanted to be.

To be honest, unionism still acts as though it is on the same journey it began on May 14 1974

To be honest, unionism still acts as though it is on the same journey it began on May 14 1974. It has toppled leaders along the way. New parties have come and gone. New proposals were initially rejected and then adopted when Westminster (in a lesson learned from 1974) refused to back down. For a few days it was a sweet victory for unionism. It has been paying for the consequences ever since.

Brian Faulkner’s final reflections still have resonance 50 years on: “As I drove from Parliament Buildings, a crowd of triumphant strike supporters were gathering at the front near Carson’s statue carrying Ulster flags and Union Jacks. All had now heard the news of the Executive’s resignation and what had been planned as another grim protest was turning into a celebration.

“They (had) rallied to the old slogans of No Surrender… (yet) they had been cruelly misled and conned by all the would-be Carsons into believing that the reactions of 1912 were all that was required in 1974.”