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Sixteen Days in May
The UWC Strike - twenty years on

The current media discussion of the Major/Reynolds Declaration in December 1993 reminds us of a previous agreement of twenty years before - the Sunningdale Agreement of December 1973. In that agreement a 'Council of Ireland' was set up which would have given Dublin a large say in Ulster's affairs. A devolved government was also set up which shared power between Brian Faulkner's Unionist Party, Gerry Fitt's SDLP and the Alliance Party. The Dublin government gained all this in exchange for a solemn pledge that there could be no change in the status of Northern Ireland until a majority desired that change. In Dublin, Kevin Boland (a former Fianna Fail cabinet minister and leader of Aontacht Éireann a republican splinter group), took the Cosgrave government to the High Court on the grounds that the Éire Constitution laid claim to Ulster and therefore the recognition of Ulster's status as part of the UK was illegal. Judge Murnaghan ruled that the Sunningdale Agreement did indeed acknowledge that Ulster was part of the UK but that the paragraph concerned was no more than a policy statement. In other words the agreement did not mean what it appeared to say. All it really meant was that the Cosgrave regime had decided not to enforce Éire's claim on Ulster against its people's will.

Ordinary loyalists who had welcomed Dublin's apparent change of heart and who had been prepared to give the agreement a chance realised that they had been conned. This became obvious when a loyalist coalition swept to victory in the February 1974 general election on the slogan 'Dublin is only a Sunningdale away'. The coalition took eleven out of twelve Westminster seats. The new Executive ignored this massive rejection by the electorate and tried to carry on as if nothing had happened.

The newly elected Labour government sent two fervent supporters of a 'united' Ireland to Ulster, Merlyn Rees and Stanley Orme. They decided to press on with the Council of Ireland, colluding with the Tories to freeze the loyalist MPs out of Westminster and prevent them from exploiting their parliamentary strength. Parliament was determined to ignore the will of the Ulster electorate, so the electorate was forced into expressing its will by extra-parliamentary means.  In April, the Ulster Workers' Council met Rees and demanded new Assembly elections and an end to the Council of Ireland. He refused, thus setting the stage for the Constitutional Stoppage.

The UWC was a group of loyalist trade unionists which was organised in all the key industries throughout Ulster. They represented the political views of loyalist workers in a way that the official Dublin-based Irish Congress of Trade Unions leadership could not, dominated as it was (and is) by anti-partitionists and communists.

On May 14th, the unrepresentative NI Assembly met to ratify the Sunningdale Agreement. The UWC placed a notice in the News Letter warning that a strike would begin that evening if Faulkner voted to support Sunningdale. The call was denounced as political by ICTU and the local CBI branch. Faulkner ignored the UWC call and the Assembly voted 44 to 28 in favour of Sunningdale. The strike was on.

The attitude of Rees and Orme was to denounce the strike as 'political blackmail' and 'thuggery'. They refused to talk to UWC representatives. As the strike bit, all loyalist areas were sealed off. The UWC took full control of all essential services while Rees and the Executive fumed on the sidelines. After some initial reservations, the UWC enjoyed solid support. Rees declared a State of Emergency.

ICTU, apparently believing the government lie that the strike was only biting because of massive intimidation decided to organise 'Back to Work' marches. The British TUC leader, Len Murray was invited to lead the main march which was given heavy police and army protection. His intervention was welcomed by CBI boss Sir Robin Kinahan and the rightist pressure group 'Aims of Industry' which praised his courage and integrity. Murray's scab march was a fiasco as only 150 people turned up to march to the Shipyard. Half of them were professional 'peace campaigners' and clergymen. For his pains Murray was pelted with eggs and tomatoes by hordes of women hecklers.

The Executive became increasingly hysterical. Faulkner hypocritically attacked the UWC as 'faceless men' who hadn't the courage to argue their views and to accept the democratic will of the people in the way that he did!   Gerry Fitt, a supposed 'Connolly Socialist' demanded that troops be sent in to crush the strike. Cosgrave, the Eire leader echoed Fitt's call for troops to be sent in to smash the 'anarchy' of the strike, 'no matter what it cost'.

The Executive was in tatters, hopelessly split between the hardliners like Seamus Mallon who wanted the Council of Ireland implemented at once and soft-pedallers like Roy Bradford who suggested talking to the UWC. On the ninth day of the the strike, the Executive announced that the full Council of Ireland proposals would be deferred until 1977. This stalling attempt did not end the strike.

On May 25th, the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson personally intervened in the growing crisis by making a nationwide television broadcast. Wilson launched a petulant torrent of abuse against all Ulster protestants and the UWC in particular. He spoke of 'people on this side of the water - British parents', who had seen their soldier sons 'vilified and spat upon and murdered' and of British taxpayers picking up the bill for repairing 'property destroyed by evil violence' without once mentioning that this was not the work of the UWC but the IRA. He continued his hate-filled diatribe by abusing the strikers for viciously defying Westminster, sponging on British democracy and systematically assaulting democratic methods. he demanded, 'Who do these people think they are?' and promised to give military aid to shore up the crumbling Executive.

The next day furious loyalists demonstrated in the streets of Ulster's towns, many contemptuously sporting pieces of sponge on their lapels. The army was sent into the Belfast oil refinery and also took over several petrol stations. in some areas arresting local strike leaders. In retaliation the UWC pulled out of all essential services and began to shut down the entire electricity grid, all gas services and the sewage system. The army were rendered helpless and Ulster became totally ungovernable. Faced with this fact, Faulkner belatedly decided to talk to the UWC. This was not acceptable to his SDLP colleagues, so he and his unionist colleagues resigned and the Executive collapsed. There were impromptu victory celebrations all over Ulster and the strike was called off.

This was the only successful general strike in British history. It demonstrated that the so-called loyalist veto is not a paper guarantee from the British government but the resolution of the majority of Ulsterfolk to have nothing to do with a 'united' Ireland. Major and Reynolds would do well to remember that.

David Kerr

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