Ulster Workers' Council Strike

Ulster Workers' Council Strike

The Ulster Workers Council (UWC) Strike was a general strike that took place between Wednesday 15 May 1974 and Tuesday 28 May 1974 in Northern Ireland. The strike was called in protest against the proposals in the Sunningdale Agreement to provide sharing of political power between unionists and nationalists, and a role for the government of the Republic of Ireland in the governance of Northern Ireland. The government claimed that the Ulster Workers Council Strike was enforced by loyalist paramilitaries Fact|date=April 2007 and there were reports of intimidation of workers in Larne and Belfast [ [http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/events/uwc/anderson.htm CAIN: Events: UWC Strike: Anderson, Don. - Chapter from '14 May Days' ] ]

The strike lasted two weeks and succeeded in bringing down the power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive. Responsibility for the government of Northern Ireland then reverted to the Parliament of the United Kingdom at Westminster under the arrangements for 'Direct Rule'.

There was a debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly on a motion condemning power-sharing and the Council of Ireland on Tuesday 14 May 1974. The motion was defeated by 44 votes to 28.

The strike had a slow start with many workers simply going to work anyway, but after a number of workplace meetings, workers began leaving their workplaces after lunchtime http://www.caltonradio.com/Content/pid=321/page=2.html] By the end of day one, the port of Larne, County Antrim, was sealed off. Roads had been blocked and buses were hijacked in Belfast. Electricity supplies were also disrupted when workers at the Ballylumford power station went on strike. The power cuts forced some factories to close and send workers home. The Ulster Workers' Council issued a statement that it would ensure that essential services would continue.

Members of the UWC had talks with Stanley Orme and the Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office. The strike was the main subject of Northern Ireland 'question time' in the House of Commons at Westminster. Paddy Devlin a member of the Executive, threatened to resign on the issue of internment.

Merlyn Rees, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, met with loyalist leaders in Stormont and said that he would not negotiate with the UWC. Postal delivery services came to a halt following intimidation of Royal Mail employees. There were continuing problems in farming and in the distribution of food supplies. William Craig, the then leader of Ulster Vanguard, criticised Merlyn Rees for not negotiating with the Ulster Workers' Council.

Car bombs in Dublin and Monaghan on 17 May 1974, killed 33 people, raising the tension in Northern Ireland. The bombs were the work of loyalist paramilitaries, allegedly with covert aid from members of the security forces. [ [http://www.irishdemocrat.co.uk/news/2004/barron-report/ Irish Democrat : News and comment : News 2004 : Barron reveals suspicion of security forces collusion in Dublin-Monaghan bombs ] ] The death toll in the bombs remains the highest to occur during any single day of the Troubles. In an attempt to resolve the strike the Northern Ireland Executive agreed to postpone certain sections of the Sunningdale Agreement until 1977 and to reduce the size of the Council of Ireland. These proposals were rejected by leaders of the Ulster Workers' Council. The British government repeated their stance on not negotiating with the UWC. Harold Wilson, the then British Prime Minister, made a broadcast on television. Wilson controversially referred to unionists as "spongers". [ [http://www.belfastcathedral.com/heritage/timelines/1971-to-1980/ Belfast Cathedral - 1971 To 1980 ] ]

On 20th May , the sixth day of the strike, the British government sent an extra 500 troops to Northern Ireland. Meanwhile an advertisement was placed in the Belfast Newsletter by Unionist politicians in support of the strike. The following day, the Trade Unions Congress attempted to lead a back to work march, but this attracted only 200 people and several of those attending were assaulted

On 24 May 1974, Sean Byrne (54) and his brother, Brendan Byrne (45), both Catholic civilians, were shot dead by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) at their bar, The Wayside Halt, Tannaghmore, near Ballymena, County Antrim for staying open during the Ulster Workers' Council Strike. (see The Troubles in Ballymena).

The crisis came to a head. Brian Faulkner resigned as Chief Executive following a refusal by Merlyn Rees to meet with representatives from the UWC. Faulkner's unionist colleagues also resigned. This effectively marked the end of the Northern Ireland Executive.

Farmers in tractors blocked the entrance to the Stormont parliament buildings and also much of the Upper Newtownards Road. The collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive spread to the protestors and celebrations took place in unionist areas across the region. The successful Ulster Workers Strike in 1974, (which was directed by Glenn Barr, an Ulster Vanguard Assemblyman and UDA member), was later described by the British minister Merlyn Rees as an "outbreak of Ulster nationalism".


"The fifteen unprecedented, historic days in which a million British citizens, the Protestants of Northern Ireland, staged what amounted to a rebellion against the Crown and won... During those fifteen days, for the first time in over fifty years... a section of the realm became totally ungovernable. A self-elected provisional government of Protestant power workers, well-armed private armies and extreme politicians organized a strike which almost broke up the fabric of civilized life in Ulster. They deprived most of the population for much of the time of food, water, electricity, gas, transport, money and any form of livelihood." — journalist Robert Fisk, in his book "The Point of No Return: The Strike Which Broke the British in Ulster"

"Here was an instance of a working-class movement which had resolved to achieve a political objective by means of a general strike. ... By the beginning of the second week of the strike, support for it had spread throughout all classes of the Protestant community. Bank managers and suburban golf club secretaries cheered the strikers on. The atmosphere recalled that of Britain in 1940. ... The whole operation was conducted...with the utmost discipline and efficiency. The strikers virtually took over the task of government. They enforced a petrol rationing scheme and issued passes to those permitted to go to work. They collected and distributed food, carrying with them the farmers who willingly bore severe financial losses in the process. Their public service announcements were read out on the BBC's Ulster Service each morning. Inevitably, there were instances of brutality, theft and peculation, but the prevailing spirit was one of dignified patriotic protest." — journalist T. E. Utley, "Lessons of Ulster" (1975)


*Don Anderson, 14 May Days, 1994, ISBN 0-7171-2177-1
*McKittrick, D, Kelters, S, Feeney, B and Thornton, C. "Lost Lives". Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, 1999, p454 and 455 (Byrnes).

External links

* [http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/events/uwc/index.html Key Events - Ulster Workers' Council (UWC) Strike] — "from the CAIN project at the University of Ulster"

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