The Ulster Protestant General strike against power-sharing government had a poor start.
On the morning of 15 May most people turned up for work. “It wasn’t organised,” admitted Harry Murray a union rep at the Belfast shipyard. “The people weren’t educated.” According to Don Anderson:
“Murray thought his own wife was joking that morning when she asked him why he was not at work. Nor did [UWC member] Bob Pagels’ wife take him seriously, at least not until she went into the kitchen of her Belfast home to make breakfast to find there was no electricity. She thought a fuse had blown. When the truth dawned she felt the same as most. ‘What on earth are we striking for? Do we need all this?’”
The story was the same across Northern Ireland. In the shipyards, only the stagers — notorious hardliners, whose job is to erect the scaffolding around ships under construction — took part. The rest of the workers left only when rumours began to circulate that cars left in the car park after a certain time would be burnt.
In the Sirocco engineering works, where Jim McIlwaine, secretary of the Belfast County Ulster Workers’ Council worked, the engineers did not want to strike. Anderson recounts: “‘I must have a wee talk with them,’ (UWC) Bob Pagels said. ‘They’ll have to fall into line.’ Pagels went onto the shop floor, wearing a coat and a pair of sunglasses. He walked through the lines of machines shaking his fist. The image was enough. Large numbers of workers left soon after. In microcosm, that was the story of the first few days days, a story of massive intimidation.”
“The UWC’s only success was in the power stations where the levels of electrical supply were reduced to sixty per cent by lunchtime on the first day. However, workers sent home from the factories because there was no power of because they were frightened were involved in a lock-out, not a strike.”
As well as power-induced lock-outs, the UWC had to rely on paramilitary intimidation.
By 16 May, the “strike” was biting. Engineering was hit hard. When a quarter of the workforce at the Mackies plant tried to work, they were chased out by paramilitaries. Petrol bombs were thrown into the Gallaher factory car park, and a spate of car hijackings formed the bulk of the intimidation campaign. Even though animal feedstuffs were on the UWC’s list of “essential services”, in reality this had little effect and did not stop hijacked feed trucks from appearing on the barricades. Hundreds of children missed school exams, with absenteeism highest in Protestant areas where roadblocks had been established. Buses were withdrawn in Belfast after a dozen vehicle had been hijacked.
That evening, the UWC closed pubs and hotels. “A group of women stormed into Shankill Road pubs declaring that if their husbands were losing money in a strike they should not be spending what little they had on drink. Pubs, they shouted, were emphatically not on the UWC list of essential services. The counter-argument that pints were ‘a normal recreational activity’ did not prevail.”
In these early stages, however, the Executive thought the strike would not last. Anything built on such a high level of intimidation, they reasoned, must be essentially brittle. The loyalist politicians had not even come out in support, waiting until the fifth day of the strike to do so.
By Friday, petrol supplies were drying up as many of the big oil and petrol companies had withdrawn their tankers. Filling stations were running out as motorists began to hoard fuel. Farmers, too, were hit. Thousands of gallons of milk were poured down the drain, and eggs and bacon exports could not reach their markets. Supermarkets rushed to sell frozen food in case power ceased completely, and shopkeepers faced a run on food supplies. The UWC were sure that a panic about food supplies would rebound on the Northern Ireland Executive.
Over the weekend, public opinion remained against the strike. The churches, the Protestant middle-class and representatives of the farming community were against. Labour Secretary of State Merlyn Rees insisted: “There will be no agreement with people who strike for political ends.”
However, the Executive was becoming increasingly worried. At a crisis meeting on Saturday 18 May they were told that the army would not be able to operate the power-stations without the aid of civilian engineers. Adding to this dismay was the fact that the Northern Ireland Office would not discuss security matters with the Executive because it was not a devolved matter. SDLP minister John Hume expected that at least one Executive member and elements of the civil service may have been leaking sensitive information to the UWC.
The following day, the British government announced a State of Emergency but the Northern Ireland Office already had all the powers it needed to deploy troops. The loyalist politicians now felt confident enough to come out in support of the strike, calling for fresh elections. In another blow to the Executive, one of their members — the Unionsist Roy Bradford — publicly broke ranks, calling for negotiations with the UWC.
Meanwhile, the Executive was deadlocked over the final ratification of the Sunningdale Agreement, and in particular about the Council of Ireland. With the army unable, or unwilling to do anything about the blockades and hijackings, the Executive looked precarious and by Monday 20 May Gerry Fitt feared it was on the verge of collapse. Power was now at such a low level that the Post Office system could not function in Belfast, impacting on pensions and benefits.
In an attempt to turn the tide, Rees and the Irish Congress of Trades Unions organised a “back to work” march to be led by the TUC general secretary, Len Murray. It ws a disastrous failure. Few turned up and they were pelted by eggs, stones and other projectiles. Partly this was because the UDA blocked roads to ensure that the route to the march was as difficult as possible. More fundamentally, though, there was a wide gulf between the local trade union leaders who supported the marches, and rank-and-file loyalist workers, who sympathised with the UWC.
During the strike, the ultra-Stalinist and pro-loyalist British Irish Communist Organisation (BICO) published a bulletin. Despite its pro-UWC stance, its commentary on the weaknesses of the Northern Ireland unions was accurate: “[Trade union leaders] are heeded by the rank and file in trade union affairs proper, but when they led the back-to-work campaign, they were not acting as trade union members but as politicians. In political matters they are at loggerheads with their members, so the campaign failed…There is a tacit understanding in the trade union movement that political and economic matters will be kept separate.”
A history of avoiding political issues in order to maintain basic unity on the economic front had left its mark on the trade union movement, and could not easily be overturned. Brian Garrett, chairman of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, agreed: “Any bloody fool could have told them [Stormont] that there were not going to be many men turning up, basically because the trade unions that were leading it had never held shop floor meetings on constitutional issues.”
On Wednesday 22 May the UWC felt confident and the Executive looked like it would collapse. The Executive’s sub-committee discussing the implementation of the Sunningdale Agreement had agreed that it was to be phased in over a number of years, and that the Council of Ireland should be delayed until after the next assembly election in 1977.
The SDLP ministers, however, had to take this to the party’s executive to be ratified. Despite Fitt’s warnings that rejection would mean the certain collapse of the Executive, the SDLP’s ruling body was angry at what were seen as concessions in the face of loyalist intimidation. The vote was 11 to eight against. Fitt went to meet Faulkner to tell him that he couldn’t carry his party with him.
When it was clear that this meant the fall of the Executive, Fitt returned to the SDLP executive but the results were the same. Fitt played one more card. He rushed to Stormont Castle, 400 metres from Parliament Buildings, to the office of Stanley Orme, Labour’s Minister of State for Northern Ireland. Fitt persuaded Orme to talk to the SDLP executive. Meanwhile, Faulkner was composing a statement on the collapse of the Executive.
By sheer chance, Fitt intercepted Faulkner in the corridor on his way to make his statement and pleaded for an hour’s adjournment. By this time, Orme had pressured the SDLP executive to reverse its decision, insisting that if the Executive fell then it would be blamed on their party; the vote was now 14 to 5 in favour of phasing in the Council of Ireland.
The Executive survived by a whisker, but it was damaged in the eyes of nationalists. The SDLP’s Falls Road branch rejected the compromise and called for an emergency conference. In Dublin, the Taoiseach, Fine Gael’s Liam Cosgrove, reluctantly accepted it but there was a strong feeling that the British government had gone back on its word after having failed to take effective action against the UWC strike.
With phasing-in agreed, the Executive was finally able to turn its attention towards the UWC strike. On Thursday 23 May, Hume unveiled a plan to use the army to take over oil. It was fraught with risk: the army could become a target for republican and loyalist retaliation, and there was a real danger of sabotage of the refinery and storage tanks if the paramilitaries got wind of the plan.
To counter the possibility that the UWC would closedown the electricity system, Hume developed a plan for the grid. This involved splitting the grid in half, using Coolkeeragh power station’s 40% Catholic workforce to provide power to the west of Northern Ireland, demonstrating that the stoppage was a lock-out and not a voluntary strike, affecting only the Protestant east of the six counties.
The Northern Ireland Electricity Service (NIES) resisted Hume’s plan right up until the end. They feared, reasonably, that if the power system was being maintained only by Catholic workers, it would poison industrial relations for years. They also envisaged that power workers in Ballylumford station in Larne would walk out, plunging the system into a crisis without any guarantees that Coolkeeragh could function on its own.
The Executive’s oil plan was of political importance. Members of the Executive felt that the British government had held back from giving them support on the basis that it needed to prove first that it was viable. It finally proved this by agreeing to phase in the Council of Ireland but by this stage, time was running out.
Finally, on Friday 24 May, representatives from the Executive met with the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. The government made only vague promises about using troops to maintain essential services, and gave no clear answer on the oil plan. The Executive returned home disappointed, though the Cabinet was due to meet that evening and Rees promised to phone with a decision on oil. The call finally came in at 11pm that night, confirming that the government would move ahead with the plan to take back the power stations.
In the meantime, however, the UWC had been moving on oil itself. Working with oil shop stewards, the UWC sequestered up to 142 stations for paramilitary use and to provide petrol to those with UWC passes for essential services. A similar system worked for animal feedstuffs. By Sunday 26 May, “the UWC had finally established control over all forms of energy, over transport, farming and commerce.”
The second weekend also further exposed the dark underside of the strike. On Friday 24, four people were killed; two were Catholics bar owners murdered for opening their businesses in defiance of the strike and two motorists died when they crashed into a tree felled as part of a barricade. That night a gang in Ballymena also wrecked pubs and a cafe, and minibuses of thugs in Ballymoney ordered customers out of pubs.