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Ulster Workers' Council Strike - Background Information

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Text: Martin Melaugh ... Research: Martin Melaugh and Fionnuala McKenna
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There were a number of events, and political developments, from 1968 through to the end of 1973 which were to have a considerable bearing on the conduct and outcome of the 1974 Ulster Workers' Council (UWC) strike. The events were viewed differently by the two main sections of the Northern Ireland community. Some of the developments mentioned below, added to a sense of political grievance felt by the Protestant community. This grievance increased the level of active support for, or at least the passive acceptance of, the UWC strike of May 1974.

The following paragraphs are intended to briefly highlight how some of the events and developments were viewed from a Protestant and unionist perspective. The reader should consult other sections of the CAIN web service for further information and also the CAIN Bibliography for references to detailed information on particular sections.

The emergence of the Civil Rights Campaign
The Civil Rights Campaign that started in the mid-1960s began in the 'pressure group' activities of mainly middle-class Catholics who published leaflets, issued statements and sent letters in the hope of addressing perceived discrimination, in many walks of life, against the Catholic community. The membership and tactics of the Civil Rights Movement was to change over the course of several years. It was to become a more broadly based organisation and was to adopt public protest on the street as the main means of achieving the movements aims.

Unionists, however, viewed the developments with deep suspicion and in many instances their reaction was openly hostile. Many Unionists believed that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was behind the agitation and accused those involved of being more interested in undermining the Northern Ireland state than in reform.

The civil unrest - 1968 and 1969
The civil unrest, the rioting that often accompanied street protests, the confrontation between the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and sections of the Catholic community, and the destruction of property, were all viewed by the Protestant community as direct attacks on the fabric of the Northern Ireland state.

The reforms introduced to answer Catholic grievances - 1968 and afterwards
The first reforms and policy initiatives were announced towards the end of 1968 and the following years saw a number of provisions introduced to address allegations of discrimination and malpractice on the part of public agencies and government departments in Northern Ireland. Some of the reforms involved merely a change in legislation and quickly achieved the desired effect, such as those reforms related to universal adult suffrage in local government elections. Other reforms have proved more problematic and appear to have had less of an impact, for example, despite several pieces of legislation aimed at achieving fair employment, the level of Catholic male unemployment has remained much higher than the Protestant level.

The series of reforms were opposed by a large section of unionist opinion, indeed the issue of reform was to see the fragmentation of the Unionist Party which had ruled Northern Ireland for 50 years. There was also violent opposition in working-class Protestant areas to some of the measures. On 11 October serious riots followed protests by Loyalists against the disbandment of the 'B Specials'. Later Loyalists open fire on officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) (who were blocking their route to a Catholic area of Belfast) killing the first RUC officer to die in the present 'Troubles'.

The Deployment of British troops - 14 August 1969
The civil unrest in Northern Ireland that had begun in 1968 reached a peak in the summer of 1969. The 'marching season' sparked riots in Derry in July but the worst rioting occurred in August 1969 following the annual Apprentice Boys march in Derry. After three days of rioting, which became known as the 'Battle of the Bogside', the British Government agreed that British troops could be deployed on the streets of Northern Ireland. While responsibility for security was to remain with the Stormont Government, the decision to deploy British troops meant that the British Government would inevitably take a more active role in Northern Ireland affairs. Many Unionist politicians, while welcoming the British troops, resented the additional interference in their handling of Northern Ireland matters. Indeed this was the first step down a road that was to lead to the establishment of 'direct rule' from Westminster.

The re-emergence of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the question of the constitutional position of Northern Ireland
The re-emergence of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) confirmed the worst fears of many Protestants. With the beginning of IRA violence unionists were also confirmed in their belief that the Civil Rights Movement had been a Republican front and that the true aim of the civil unrest was to achieve a united Ireland. As the IRA became active in Northern Ireland the issue of reform of the Northern Ireland state was to be replaced by the question of the constitutional future of Northern Ireland.

The Introduction of Internment - 9 August 1971
The Unionist controlled Stormont Government convinced the British Government of the need, and the advantages, of introducing internment as a means of countering rising levels of paramilitary violence. The policy proved however to be a disastrous mistake. The measure was only used against the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Catholic community. Although Loyalist paramilitaries had been responsible for some of the violence no Protestants were arrested (the first Protestant internees were detained on 2 February 1973). The crucial intelligence on which the success of the operation depended was flawed and many of those arrested had to be subsequently released because they were not involved in any paramilitary activity.

In response to internment the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association began a campaign of civil disobedience which culminated in a 'rent and rates strike' by those in public sector houses. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) was forced to end co-operation with the Northern Ireland government. In addition many commentators are of the opinion that internment resulted in increased support, active and tacit, among the Catholic community for the IRA. The level of civil unrest and the level of IRA violence surged.

While unionists would have initially welcomed the stronger security measures represented by internment they would perhaps have been less enthusiastic for the policy if they had foreseen the consequences for the Northern Ireland parliament.

The events of 'Bloody Sunday' - 30 January 1972
The introduction of internment sparked off a series of street protests against the measure. One such protest took place in Derry on Sunday 30 January 1972. The march was organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). The organisers of the march had intended to walk from the Creggan area of Derry through the Bogside to the centre of the city. The Parachute Regiment of the British Army was given responsibility for policing the march and the route from the Bogside to the city centre was blocked by the troops. As the main body of marchers approached the line of troops they turned right towards 'Free Derry Corner' to hold a rally. A group of mainly young people broke away from the march and began to throw stones at the troops.

The exact circumstances of what happened next are in dispute. The British Army later claimed that they came under fire from people in the crowd. The local residents have always maintained that there were no shots fired at the troops, rather it was they who opened fire without warning. What was established was that members of the Parachute Regiment fired 108 shots, killed 13 men (one man died in June 1972 from injuries bringing the figure to 14), and injured a further 13 people. A British inquiry, headed by Lord Widgery, concluded that some of the shooting "had bordered on the reckless" but that the troops were fired upon first. The city's coroner, Hubert O'Neill, took a different view. He noted that many of the victims were shot in the back and described the events as "unadulterated murder". No independent public inquiry into the events of what became know as 'Bloody Sunday' has ever been held.

One of the outcomes of 'Bloody Sunday' was a huge increase in support for the Irish Republican Army (IRA). In addition the events of that day were to signal the end of Unionist rule at Stormont, something which was to have a profound affect on the Protestant population of Northern Ireland.

The prorogation of the Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont - 28 March 1972
Brian Faunkner, the then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, was summoned to London on 24 March 1972. Edward Heath, the then British Prime Minister, informed Faulkner that security policy would be transferred to Westminster. This was unacceptable to the Unionist controlled Northern Ireland Government and it prompted the British Government to suspend the Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont and assume "full and direct responsibility" (Edward Heath, the then British Prime Minister, 24 March 1972). The Northern Ireland parliament met for the last time on 28 March 1972 and Brian Faunkner and his cabinet resigned thus ending 50 years of Unionist rule of Northern Ireland. "We feel we, in our endeavour to provide just Government in Ulster, have been betrayed from London" (Brian Faunkner, 28 March 1972).

Undoubtedly the Irish Republican Army (IRA) saw the introduction of 'Direct Rule' as a victory for nationalists and something which, from their point of view, highlighted the real cause of the conflict, that is, British control of a partitioned island. In line with their assessment of the new situation the IRA continued its campaign which reached new heights on 14 April 1972 when 30 bombs exploded in Belfast. In the 'zero sum' game of Northern Ireland politics the prorogation of the Stormont Government represented the greatest blow to the Protestant psyche in 50 years. It undoubtedly had an alienating effect on many Protestants.

The Darlington Conference on political options for Northern Ireland - 25 to 27 September 1972
A series of round-table talks were held at the Darlington Conference in an effort to find agreement on the political future of the region. Unionists, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI) and the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) took part, but the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) refused to attend because of the continuation of internment. From the talks the government produced a discussion paper The Future of Northern Ireland: A Paper for Discussion (30 October 1972). The paper stated that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom (UK) as long as the people of Northern Ireland wished. But it added that: "There are strong arguments that the objective of real participation should be achieved by giving minority interests a share in the exercise of executive power." Although the term was not used the government was suggesting power-sharing. The document also introduced the idea of an Irish dimension, something which was bound to be viewed with suspicion by unionists. "Any new arrangements for NI should, whilst meeting the wishes of Northern Ireland and Great Britain, be, as far as is possible, acceptable to and accepted by the Republic of Ireland." The Orange Order, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), Ulster Vanguard and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) all rejected this proposal.

The United Loyalist Council Strike - 7 February 1973
Two loyalists were arrested on 2 February 1973 in connection with the murder of a Catholic man. Three days later, on 5 February 1973 it was announced that the two men were to be 'detained' making them the first Protestants to be interned. In response to the internment of the two men the United Loyalist Council (ULC), led by William Craig, the then leader of Ulster Vanguard, called for a one-day general strike for 7 February 1973. The ULC was an umbrella group which co-ordinated the activities of the Loyalist Association of Workers (LAW), the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), and a number of other Loyalist paramilitary groups. The aim of the strike was to "re-establish some kind of Protestant or loyalist control over the affairs in the province, especially over security policy" (Anderson, 1994, p4).

The first cut in the supply of electricity occurred on 6 February 1973 and power cuts were to affect Northern Ireland until the end of the strike. Many factories, commercial establishments, and schools were affected by the action. The ULC strike demonstrated, what many already knew, that loyalist workers had sufficient control over the Northern Ireland economy to bring it to a standstill if there was sufficient motivation and support amongst the Protestant population. The ULC strike was marked by high levels of violence with five people, including a fireman, being killed, seven people wounded, several explosions and numerous malicious fires. The violence and chaos had the effect of reducing support for the action among the Protestant community, particularly middle-class Protestants.

Most commentators view the 1973 ULC strike as a failure in that it did not achieve its aim and because it divided Protestant opinion. However, it did demonstrate the potential of a general stoppage and similar tactics were to be used during the Ulster Workers' Council strike of May 1974.

The Northern Ireland Constitution Act (1973)
Following the 1973 United Loyalist Council (ULC) strike the British Government issued a White Paper which proposed the setting up of an assembly at Stormont to be elected by proportional representation (PR). The elected assembly was envisaged as working on a basis of partnership and agreement between Unionists and Nationalists, that is power-sharing. Even more radical were the proposals in the White Paper for there to be an involvement in the government of Northern Ireland by the Irish Government. The proposals were to increase the tensions that already existed within the main Unionist block and eventually lead to further splits in the Unionist Party.

The Northern Ireland Constitution Bill was introduced in Parliament on 15 May 1973 and became law on 18 July 1973. The Act, and related legislation, paved the way for the new assembly with devolved powers to be established at Stormont. The 1973 Act lead to a conflict of loyalties within the Unionist community. In addition to the prospect of Nationalists being given a say in the running of Northern Ireland, the Government of the Republic of Ireland would also have a role. Implicit in all that had happened to date was the fact that the Northern Ireland constitutional question was back on the political agenda.

The election of the Northern Ireland Assembly - 28 June 1973
The election for the proposed Stormont Assembly was held on 28 June 1973. The results table proved to be confusing because the party labels did not reveal the different positions taken by candidates within the Unionist Party on the question of the White Paper proposals. The majority of unionist candidates were against the proposals on power-sharing. However, the combination of unionists, nationalists, and Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI) candidates, in favour of the proposals, outnumbered those against the proposals. This coalition of parties, however, took quite a considerable time to reach agreement.

The first meeting of the Northern Ireland Assembly took place on 31 July 1973, but it was not until the 22 November 1973 that it is announced that agreement has been reached on the setting up of an 'executive', made up of 11 members.

The Sunningdale Agreement - 9 December 1973
In reaching agreement on a power-sharing executive to govern Northern Ireland the question of the proposed 'Irish dimension' had not been resolved. It was to tackle this issue that the parties involved in the executive took part in a conference in Sunningdale, Berkshire, which also included representatives of the British and Irish Governments. The most contentious elements in the eventual 'Sunningdale Agreement' were the proposals for the setting up of a Council of Ireland. For many unionists the Council of Ireland was totally unacceptable.

The Westminster election - 28 February 1974
Although the Northern Ireland Executive members encountered problems from the time they were sworn in, the first public test of opinion came with the Westminster election on 28 February 1974 which was viewed as a referendum on power-sharing and the Sunningdale Agreement. Those opposed to Sunningdale fought the election under the auspicious of the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC) and won 51 per cent of the votes cast, and took 11 of the 12 Westminster seats. While the results of the election did not have a direct affect on the Northern Ireland Executive it did show the increasing opposition to power-sharing and the Council of Ireland. The result also provided those opposed to Sunningdale with a mandate to continue to try to end the Northern Ireland Executive.

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