Ulster’s Protestant general strike

Submitted by AWL on 6 May, 2014 - 6:03

In May 1974, the Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC) “strike” put an end to Northern Ireland’s first short-lived experiment with power-sharing government.

The strike was, in fact, a “lock-out”, with loyalists opposed to power-sharing with nationalists persuading people to strike with significant intimidation. It succeeded in bringing down the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland but, without any positive alternative as an aim, the strike led to more than two decades of direct rule from London.

In the late 1960s, Catholic demands for civil rights created a crisis for the state in Northern Ireland. Unable to control the unrest, the Stormont regime which had ruled de facto independently from Westminster since 1921 needed to be propped up by British troops after August 1969. Communal tensions and violence led to a resurgence of Irish republican activity. Formed in December 1969 (from a split in the IRA), the so-called “Provisional” IRA, launched an armed campaign against the British government.

In response, Northern Ireland’s Unionist Party Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, persuaded the British government to sanction internment without trial under the notorious Special Powers Act. Though it had been used successfully to a more limited extent by Faulkner against the IRA in the 1950s, the introduction of internment in August 1971 was a disaster.

In early 1971, 30 people had died in politically related violence; between internment and the end of 1971, this figure rose to 173 and another 80 would die before direct rule. Reflecting Catholic alienation from the state, opposition politicians called a rent and rates strike and a campaign of civil disobedience. To the British, it was clear that the Unionist Party was incapable of containing the violence or introducing limited reforms to the state.

By 1972 the Provisional IRA was about to step up its campaign, and a “Protestant backlash” was expected. On 30 January 1972 — “Bloody Sunday” — fourteen innocent civilians were murdered by British paratroopers and the Six Counties looked set to collapse into a death spiral of violence.

Barely a week later a new organisation called Ulster Vanguard was formed by William Craig from right-wing elements of the Unionist Party. It was to play a significant role in attempting to organise and control the UWC strike two years later.

Craig was the hard-line Minister for Home Affairs who ordered the police suppression of the major Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) march in Derry in October 1968. Dismissed as a Minister in December 1968, and unburdened by the responsibilities of Cabinet collective responsibility, Craig began organising opposition to the reformist direction of the Unionist Party leadership. Throughout 1969 Craig continued to address Unionist meetings, “making speeches” complained Faulkner, “which bordered on open incitement to rebel against the United Kingdom Government.”

In September 1969, Craig launched the Ulster Loyalist Association (ULA) as a group for right-wing Unionists. Craig’s language got more violent as discontent about the reforms grew, and he even urged loyalists to raise a force like Edward Carson’s UVF (loyalist paramilitary group set up in 1913 to resist Home Rule). In October, Craig told a ULA rally that he wouldn’t rule out the use of arms if Westminster suspended Stormont and introduced direct rule.

Craig saw the ULA as “a ginger group within the Unionist Party”. He later recounted that it “changed its name to Ulster Vanguard Clubs so that communities will have the direct opportunity of joining the Vanguard.” The decision to make this transformation appears to have been taken at a meeting of “dissident” Unionists in Portadown in October 1971. A fourteen-person steering committee was formed to develop policies opposing the government’s proposed reforms and a further meeting in Belfast decided on the name “Ulster Unionist Vanguard.”

Its chairperson, Jean Coulter, announced a week later that: “The purpose of the organisation shall to be direct and co-ordinate the work and actions of affiliated Unionist constituency associations in maintaining the constitution of the Parliament of Northern Ireland with all its powers and functions enjoyed and exercised in the year 1968 undiminished and conforming and adhering to the principles and procedures and parliamentary democratic and government prevailing in the United Kingdom.”

In the Northern Ireland context, the UK political system meant majority Protestant rule. Vanguard intended to organise discontented elements of the Stormont system to defend an “Orange State”.

A central committee was formed reflecting the attempt to make Vanguard into an “umbrella” spanning the whole of loyalism. It involved Reverend Martin Smyth, Grand Master of Belfast and District Grand Orange Lodge, as well senior Orangemen from Antrim and Derry. Unionist MP Austin Ardill represented the Ulster Loyalist Association of right-wing Unionists, whilst two new groups, the Loyalist Association of Workers (LAW) and the Ulster Special Constabulary Association (USCA) were represented by Hugh Petrie and George Green respectively. This mirrored the federal structure of the Unionist Party, which itself was an attempt to construct a cross-class alliance of Protestants.

Craig had reason to be optimistic. Many sections of the Protestant community were angry at moves to reform the state. The Orange Order was furious at then Prime Minister James Chichester-Clarke’s decision to suspend parades for six months in the summer of 1971. In 1969, the Hunt Report recommended the dismantling of the “B” Specials auxiliary police force and its replacement with the Army-controlled Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). Former “B” Specials were brought together in the USCA, said to have the backing of around 10,000 former auxiliaries. Vanguard also received the support of discontented party councillors, who resented the diminished power of local government — the site of the most egregious sectarian discrimination under the Stormont system.

According one historian, out of 1,625 initial applications, only 700 were from former members of the USC. For the remainder, the USCA provided a means by which they could continue to oppose the IRA. At a meeting on 3 September 1971, it was reported that around 2,000 former ‘B’ Specials met at Hillsborough, County Down, to call for an auxiliary force and expressed a lack of confidence in the UDR. Craig was intimately involved with organisation of these men into the USCA. Not only was USCA chairman, George Green, to become a Vanguard councillor in North Down but Craig is cited in the press as having facilitated recruitment to the organisation. “My own phone has been ringing non-stop,” he said, and “[businessmen] have promised money to pay staff needed to cope with the mountain of forms.”

Just like the attempts of James Craig and the Unionist ruling-class in 1920 to control popular loyalist violence, Green explained that “our main idea is to prevent [violence] and to try and control people. We have upheld the law in Northern Ireland for fifty years and I would deplore the like of this happening.”

Craig thrived as a stubborn opponent of all reform. As one magazine’s leader article at the time expressed it: “If you follow Bill Craig you don’t have to make any adjustment at all in your ways of thinking. That suits a lot of people in Ulster.”

Immediately after its foundation on 9 February 1972, Vanguard called a series of “monster rallies” in towns across Northern Ireland. The first was in Lisburn on 12 February, and was described by one observer as “deeply sinister.” Simon Winchester, the Guardian correspondent in Northern Ireland wrote that it was: “something Ireland had not seen since the days of 1912 — Protestants in their own fighting uniform, the very makings of a loyalist army. There were 500 or more men, some in battledress jackets and jeans, many in berets and wearing insignia of rank in their epaulettes. Craig, who arrived in an ancient car escorted by a motorcycle outrider squad, dismounted in the manner of a latter-day Mussolini to inspect the readiness of his band of tough-faced men. And then he mounted the dais to read the words of the old Ulster Covenant, and to win from the crowd an approving triple shout of agreement, recalling the Nuremberg rallies or the Mosley meetings in London and Liverpool.”

Each Vanguard rally was more or less larger than the last. A confidential report by the Northern Ireland Ministry of Home Affairs estimated that 2,000 attended the Lisburn rally, increasing to 7,000 at Ballymena at the beginning of March. A fortnight later, approximately 50,000 attended the rally in Ormeau Park, Belfast. Though derided by Faulkner as “comic opera parades”, there was nothing funny about them.

The gathering in Ormeau Park on 18 March was described by the Newsletter as “the biggest rally since the days of Lord Carson.” Vanguard now began to be taken seriously. The crowd of up to 50,000 heard chilling rhetoric from the platform. “We must build up the dossier of the men and women who are a menace to this country, it may be our job to liquidate the enemy,” Craig warned. Just two weeks earlier during an interview with RTÉ Craig, when asked in the loyalist backlash would target all Catholics in Ulster replied: “It might no go so far as that but it could go so far as killing.”

After the Ormeau Park rally Catholics in areas such as the Ardoyne laid in stocks of tinned food, milk, fuel and other necessities in preparation for an expected siege. Seventy Catholics were killed between 1 April 1972 and 31 January 1973; the long-awaited “Protestant backlash” had begun. 1972 was not only the most deadly year of the conflict (467 people died in total) but also the only year of the Troubles during which loyalists were responsible for more killings than the Provisional IRA.

Stormont was finally prorogued on 21 March 1972 and loyalists responded with a mass rally outside Parliament Buildings. The rally was called by Craig’s organisation but as one contemporary observed, the proceeding were “indicative of the uneasy line to be drawn between the old Unionist government and the Vanguard.”

Faulkner by his own admission “was shaken and horrified, and felt completely betrayed” over the introduction of direct rule and the Unionist Cabinet made the astute political decision to resign collectively. This placed them temporarily on the side of popular loyalist opinion. The appearance of Faulkner on the balcony at the rally shaking hands with Craig was a powerful symbol of Unionist unity. Indicative of the tensions within the party, Craig initially admitted that there had been a prior phone call between himself and Faulkner to arrange their joint appearance; it was only when Vanguard realised that they had been upstaged by the Prime Minister that they issued an angry denial.

Faulkner asked Craig to participate in the Darlington Conference to map out a way forward for Northern Ireland with the liberal Alliance Party and the Northern Ireland Labour Party. “It was the acid test”, Faulkner recalled, “as to whether I was going to be able to bring him along with me or whether the pressure on him from his Vanguard organisation would lead to a renewed split between us.” Craig refused outright, “I can in no way participate in a conference which is an attempt to set aide the constitutional and democratic processes.” He was only in the Unionist Party in so far as it could be a vehicle to reverse the recent reforms and was not interested in taking responsibility for any positive proposals.

The breach between the Unionist Party and Vanguard began to widen. In April 1972 Craig made a speech to the Monday Club, a right-wing fringe of the Conservative Party, warning: “When we say force, we mean force. We will only assassinate our enemies as a last desperate resort when we are denied our democratic rights.” Not only Faulkner but hardliner Harry West and the Vanguard deputy leader, Captain Austin Ardill, criticised the speech. The latter distanced himself from Craig’s more belligerent tone which made him unpopular with some Vanguard members and he faced calls for his resignation.

The final breach came in March 1973 when at the Ulster Unionist Council (UUC), Faulkner proposed to open discussions with the Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, on the British government Northern Ireland Office’s proposals for a new power-sharing government between Unionists and Nationalists.

The Unionist Party had not yet committed itself to anything so ambitious but even opening up discussion on the basis of the proposals was too much for Vanguard members. The vote on opening up discussions was 348 in favour to 231. A number of delegates walked out and Craig soon published a letter of resignation from the governing UUC. He made it clear that the break was final by calling for members to join him in the formation of a new party: the Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party (VUPP).

Now competing with the Unionist Party, the VUPP tried to rest on the support of loyalist paramilitaries. The largest was the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), formed from local Protestant vigilante organisations in the summer of 1971. Craig set up a phantom organisation, the Vanguard Service Corps (VSC). He tried and failed to attract many UDA men but the organisation allowed Vanguard a seat at the paramilitary table alongside the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and other loyalist groups.

The alliance between Vanguard and the loyalist paramilitaries was characterised by mutual distrust. The paramilitaries resented attempts by the politicians to control them, while the politicians were worried about the reputational damage that could be suffered by associating with what one Craig supporter called “these elements.”

These tensions would manifest themselves most strongly during the UWC strike. The trigger for the strike was the new power-sharing government .

On 28 June 1973, an election was held to a new 78-seat assembly. The Unionist Party was in disarray, split between pro- and anti-power sharing candidates. On the anti- side were 12 Unionists, eight members of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), seven members of Vanguard, and three other loyalists. On the pro-power sharing side were 19 members of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), 8 members of Alliance and 20 pro-White Paper Unionists. The majority of unionists/loyalists opposed power-sharing, but Faulkner could rule in a coalition with the SDLP and Alliance.

In November 1973, the SDLP, Alliance and Faulkner’s Unionists reached an agreement with representatives of the British and Irish governments (the Sunningdale Agreement). It safeguarded the position of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom so far as the majority wished and instituted a cross-border Council of Ireland recognising the claim of the Republic of Ireland to have a say in the affairs of Northern Ireland, subject to Unionist veto.

The Council of Ireland proved a step too far for many Unionists. Though a limited advisory body with little power, in the words of historian Don Anderson, “many Unionists had only to hear the name of the body to be opposed to it.”

On 1 January 1974, the new Northern Ireland Executive was sworn in, led by Chief Executive Brian Faulkner and Deputy Chief Executive Gerry Fitt, from the SDLP. But three days later Faulkner’s own party rejected the Sunningdale Agreement by 427 votes to 374, leaving the new Chief Executive without a party machine or headquarters, ruling only with his other party allies in the new Assembly.

This considerably strengthened the hand of the anti-Sunningdale Unionists. The new Official Unionist leader Harry West led his party into a coalition with the DUP and Vanguard; it became the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC). They sought to make the Assembly unworkable, occupying the front bench, removing the mace, and starting a partial boycott of proceedings.

The most ominous developments lay outside of the Assembly, amongst loyalist paramilitary and workers’ organisations. The Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC), the front behind which the strike was eventually organised, had it roots in the now-defunct Loyalist Association of Workers (LAW). LAW was formed by Belfast shipyard union official Billy Hull in 1971, and had strong links to the UDA. It had been tarnished as a result of a previous failed strike by loyalists in February 1973, which led to the 5 fatal shootings, including that of a fireman fighting a blaze in the Protestant Sandy Row.

In November 1973, Hugh Petrie, a Shorts aircraft worker, had the idea of forming a new loyalist workers’ organisation. Together with an official from Vanguard, they met with contacts in power stations, grain mills and engineering works around Belfast.

A secret meeting took place in the Vanguard party headquarters on Hawthornden Road in the leafy east Belfast suburbs. It was chaired by Captain Austin Ardill, and attended by Petrie and a group of workers from key industries. There from the Belfast shipyard was Harry Murray, a popular union rep with no record of association with the discredited LAW. Suspicious of Vanguard, and politicians in general, Murray nearly walked out but was eventually persuaded to become the chairman of the new, yet unnamed, organisation. All were agreed, however, on holding another strike for political purposes against power-sharing and the Council of Ireland.

The initial meetings were not promising. Though the body nominally had a 21-member committee, its first meeting only attracted 8. The next meeting attracted 9, including Paisley, Craig and West, and decided to call the organisation the UWC. The politicians were unhappy; it seemed ludicrious that an organisation that could not organise its own committee would be able to launch a general strike.

24 Feburary 1974 was initially set as the date for the strike. However, British Prime Minister Ted Heath called a general election for that date because he was in a battle with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) over pay restraint. Anti-power-sharing unionists mobilised under the slogan “Dublin is just a Sunningdale away” and almost swept the board. Of the 12 Northern Ireland seats in the House of Commons, the UUUC won 11 and claimed over half of the total votes. The only pro-Sunningdale MP left was Gerry Fitt, allowing the loyalists to claim that the new Assembly was illegimate.

The strike date was moved forward to 8 March, and then to 14 March. Some in the UWC were getting frustrated with Murray. Of these, the most important was Billy Kelly, a power worker who threatened to go ahead on his own and use electricity cuts to paralyse the North.

In contrast to the shambles of the UWC, the loyalist paramilitaries were organised. Every Wednesday during April 1974, Glenn Barr, an Assembly-member with public connections to the UDA, convened a meeting of up to 30 representatives of all the loyalist paramilitaries. These included not only the UDA and the UVF, but the Orange Volunteers, the USCA, and other minor groups.

The UDA also wanted to re-build the loyalists’ trade union connections. Its commander, Andy Tyrie, decided that the easiest way would be to influence the new UWC. He invited the UWC to a meeting in the UDA headquarters near the Shankill Road in west Belfast, with both the paramilitaries and the workers agreeing not to invite the politicians. The UDA’s intention was to nail the UWC down to a date, and suggested 14 May when the Assembly was due to ratify the Sunningdale Agreement. The decision to launch the strike, then, was not a UWC decision; the push was given by the UDA.

The strike was not to be the token affair envisaged by the politicians, and Craig, Paisley and West were hostile to it. On 14 May, Murray and other UWC members were watching the Assembly debate from the public gallery. Later in the day, there was a heated exchange of views between the UWC and the loyalist leaders. Murray recalled that the UWC men “were worried they seemed to have no will to win. We told them they were bankrupt of idea and were finished as far as leading the people was concerned... I was greatly distressed to hear Craig say in that room that we wouldn’t last twelve hours, that we would not get support... They didn’t seem to care and we walked out of the room.”

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