Stoppage that brought the north to its knees
Thirty years on — The Ulster workers strike remembered

William Scholes - Irish News
May 15, 2004

William Scholes looks back to 1974 and how rising tensions in the
north resulted in an unprecedented strike that set back power
sharing by almost 30 years.

Confusing splits within unionism, concerns over the Pope's health
and an apparently ill fated experiment in power sharing – the
headlines at the start of May 1974 seem to echo those of May 2004.

But for all the similarities, these were also the days of 15-minute
gun battles between soldiers and IRA members in Crossmaglen and
deadly bomb attacks at places such as the Rose and Crown pub on
Belfast's Ormeau Road, in which six people died.

British troops, IRA gunmen and bombers and loyalist paramilitaries
were all on the streets as what would later become known as the
Troubles gathered their bloody momentum.

Against a backdrop of killings and injuries, efforts to find a
political solution had led to the creation of the Sunningdale
Agreement, which created an executive in which unionists, led by
Brian Faulkner, shared power with the SDLP, under the leadership of
Gerry Fitt, and the Alliance Party.

In addition to establishing power sharing at Stormont, Sunningdale
created an assembly and proposed setting up a council of Ireland
which, hardline unionists feared, would give the Dublin government a
direct hand in the affairs of the north.

Three strands of unionism opposed to both Faulkner's pro-power-
sharing leadership and Sunningdale, joined forces to form the United
Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC).

The UUUC represented the Official, Vanguard and Democratic Unionist
parties – led by Harry West, William Craig and Ian Paisley
respectively – as well as the Orange Order and believed the majority
of unionists were opposed to power sharing.

An opportunity to test this view came less than two months after the
Faulkner/Fitt executive had been formed on January 1 1974 with the
calling of a general election on February 28.

It was a resounding victory for the UUUC, with its representatives
winning 11 of 12 seats.

Armed with this bolstered mandate and determined to bring down the
executive, UUUC member John (now Lord) Laird proposed a motion
calling for the rejection of Sunningdale.

Mr Faulkner put forward a counter motion, with the date for the
debate set as May 14.

At the start of May power station workers had gone on strike in a
dispute over pay.

The stoppage had a crippling effect on Northern Ireland industry,
including the temporary closure of Harland and Wolff, Shorts and

"I think we have walked to the brink, looked over and come back just
in time," an employer, little knowing what lay ahead, said after the
strike had been settled.

As the day of the crucial vote drew near, it looked as if the
executive parties of Mr Faulkner, Mr Fitt and Alliance leader Oliver
Napier would be able to muster a total of 45 votes compared to 31
votes for the anti-executive UUUC.

On the Saturday before the vote, May 11, a warning from a group
calling itself the Ulster Workers' Council (UWC) was tucked away in
the news stories.

The UWC said it would call a "full-scale strike" if the assembly
approved Sunningdale.

"The UWC, the successor of the Loyalist Association of Workers,
which organised political strikes in the past, claims to have
300,000 members," the Irish News reported.

Tensions, already high, increased when Vanguard leader Mr Craig said
that the spate of sectarian murders in the north
was "understandable" and "excusable", a view that led the Irish News
leader writer to be visited "by feelings of contempt".

By May 14 the stage was set for the opening act of a battle of
nerves that eventually brought the north to its knees, bringing the
Sunningdale experiment to an end and setting back power sharing by
almost 30 years.

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