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United Unionist Action Council (UUAC) Strike (1977)
- Assessment of the Strike



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Text and Research: Brendan Lynn
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United Unionist Action Council (UUAC) Strike (1977)
- Assessment of the Strike

To a certain degree any analysis of the UUAC stoppage of May 1977 is overshadowed by the fact that unlike the 1974 UWC strike it is regarded as having largely failed to achieve all its objectives. As a result it has not received the same sort of attention and therefore no detailed assessment has looked at the events of the period. To a certain extent this is understandable given the dramatic impact of the events of 1974. At the same time however what was to happen between 3 - 13 May 1977 remains important in terms of the fact that in its own way it too was to have a significant impact on the future of Northern Ireland.

In seeking an explanation as to why the UUAC strike was ultimately unsuccessful one has to begin with the response of the British government. Unlike in 1974 it appeared to be better prepared and determined to take on the protestors and at the forefront of these efforts was to be Roy Mason, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Mason appeared anxious to see off the threat and to adopt a more vigorous response than the authorities had followed in the past to similar events. Whilst the action taken by the authorities at Westminster was undoubtedly an important factor it was by no means the only reason for the UUAC abandoning the strike on Friday 13 May 1977. Instead what quickly emerged was that unlike in May 1974 the UUAC was unable to bring Northern Ireland to a standstill. Essential services remained in place and although many areas suffered widespread disruption there was no repeat of the industrial and commercial shutdown of three years earlier. Thus it was clear that the broad coalition that had united unionist and loyalist opinion during the UWC strike had failed on this occasion to materialise.

As to the reasons for this, even before the UUAC had commenced on its course of action there was plenty of evidence to suggest that the unity of purpose that had existed in 1974 was no longer in place. Whilst in 1974 all unionists and loyalists could combine against what appeared to be a real threat to the existence of Northern Ireland, the issues in 1977 did not seem to be either as clear cut or immediate. To begin with large sections of the unionist establishment such as the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Orange Order were steadfastly opposed to repeating the tactic of 1974. In addition within the wider Protestant community amongst the main churches, business, and trade unionists, there was no apparent appetite to risk the possibility of unrest in order to force the British government to meet the demands of the UUAC.

While there was widespread unease at the perceived failure of the existing security policy, the authorities at Westminster were only too aware of this. As a result Mason moved quickly to promise to take action to meet these concerns and this undoubtedly did much to reassure many. Likewise on the political front many within the unionist community had seemed to grow tired of the constant instability caused in part by the search for a political solution. An obvious example of this had been the way in which the UUP had moved towards abandoning its demand for a return of devolved power in favour of closer integration within the United Kingdom. As a result the UUUC was to first divide and then begin to break-up over the merits of embarking on a second strike.

The effects of all of these developments became obvious when the strike got underway on Monday 3 May 1977 to a slow start. This was largely the result of the Northern Ireland workforce being urged by church leaders as well as leading figures from the UUP and Orange Order to ignore the call from UUAC to support the stoppage. This presented the leadership of the UUAC with a major dilemma as to how it could persuade people to voluntarily participate in its call to action. Into the vacuum stepped those loyalist paramilitaries who had decided to back the UUAC and within the first three days of the dispute the RUC were to record some 1,000 complaints of intimidation. In many cases these threats proved to be counter-productive with workers resenting the attempts by paramilitary groups to pressurise them. This was soon borne out when power workers at Ballylumford, which supplied about two-thirds of Northern Ireland's electricity, refused to close down the generators and made clear their intentions to stay at work as long as other workers turned their back on the strike.

To many within the general unionist community, already suspicious of the intentions of elements within the UUAC, the widespread use of intimidation only further alienated them from the strike. To these fears was then added the worrying sight of loyalist paramilitaries clashing with the security forces. The question began to be asked was it right for such groups to confront the very forces that the strike had set out to defend. As the unrest and the possibility of further violence increased the opposition, if anything, against the stoppage within unionist began to strengthen. By the second week as it became clear that the strike would not bring Northern Ireland to a halt the UUAC decided to bring it to an end at midnight on Friday 13 May 1977.

 


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