Radio review: Bringing the ghosts of another world to vivid life

BBC podcast recalls Ulster Workers’ Council strike which paralysed Northern Ireland 50 years ago

Nuala McCann

Nuala McCann

Nuala McCann is an Irish News columnist and writes a weekly radio review.

Assume Nothing: How to kill a government in 14 days, BBC Radio Ulster

A Tuesday evening in May 1974, a vote in an assembly. So what?

But this was Northern Ireland. This was the Ulster Workers’ Council strike.

It was a strike that paralysed Northern Ireland and slid it into anarchy.

Writer and presenter Glenn Patterson was just 12 years old. What he and producer Ophelia Byrne do in this powerful podcast is bring that history to vivid life.

Patterson is a deft hand with a script. He can be wry about the otherworldliness of that time before there was even an Radio Ulster.

Instead, we had that plummy voice on BBC Radio 4 interviewing Abba.

“Who better to ask than Anna, the girl with the tight pants herself, and husband Bjorn,” says the non-PC presenter.

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

That’s just an aside. It’s the local voices that surface from the ether – ghosts of another world.

We are served the history so vividly that it comes flooding back.

The assembly was elected in January, and it was to be a year of reconciliation in Northern Ireland. About 1,000 people had already lost their lives in the Troubles.

By May things had turned dark in the assembly.

Here are the voices – Brian Faulker and Gerry Fitt; Paddy Devlin and Harry West and Glenn Barr.

UWC strike
Ulster Unionist leader Brian Faulkner, Secretary of State Willie Whitelaw, Oliver Napier of the Alliance Party and the SDLP's Gerard Fitt, pictured leaving Stormont Castle (PA/PA)

We hear people talking about the strike: someone quoting Ezekiel; a woman saying: “I think that civil war is inevitable.”

Billy Kelly, leader of the UWC, worked at a power plant.

“Where electricity is concerned, Northern Ireland is a closed circuit… control those power stations and you control… the whole country,” said Patterson.

The Ulster Workers' Council strike would not have succeeded without loyalist paramilitaries
The Ulster Worker's Council strike brought large parts of Northern Ireland to a standstill

Think of hospitals, factories and sewerage works. Think what happens without electricity – the power that being powerless holds. You can paralyse a whole country.

The fledgling devolved government was overthrown 50 years ago. It would be 1998 before the Good Friday Agreement came along… Sunningdale for slow learners, as Seamus Mallon said wryly.

The script is brought to life by Patterson’s writing and delivery; the rich vein of archive footage makes 50 years ago seem like only yesterday

There is a lot to love about Assume Nothing. The script is brought to life by Patterson’s writing and delivery; the rich vein of archive footage makes 50 years ago seem like only yesterday.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. “If only” is a phrase that slips easily off the tongue.

Assume Nothing shines a fierce light on what was.