Sunningdale and the 1974 Ulster Workers” Council strike

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2007), Northern Ireland 1920 - present, Volume 15

In March 1972 the British government abolished the unionist-dominated parliament at Stormont but subsequently found it extremely difficult to establish a new administration. The overall parameters of a political settlement (at least as far as the British government was concerned) were clear: a power-sharing administration for Northern Ireland with both unionist and nationalist political opinion being represented in the executive; a degree of cooperation between the Northern Ireland executive and the Irish government; and an element of British–Irish cooperation. The difficulty with this perfectly rational plan was that it would be required to operate against the high level of fear, anger and violence permeating the worst years of the Troubles.
Although working-class Catholic areas had arguably suffered most from the impact of the Troubles, nationalists could at least point to movement on addressing their grievances in the removal of the Northern Ireland parliament. For most unionists, however, the period after 1968 had been one of retreat, if not political defeat, which included the abolition in 1970 of the Ulster Special Constabulary (B Specials), an organisation that unionists had viewed as the backbone of their defence against the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and the abolition of ‘their’ parliament in 1972. Nationalist leaders such as Gerry Fitt and John Hume were viewed as having played a significant role in these developments and were deeply distrusted by unionists. Nationalists in turn had little faith in unionist leaders such as Brian Faulkner, who, as Northern Ireland prime minister, had introduced internment only eighteen months earlier.

Assembly elections
In June 1973 the Northern Ireland assembly election returned 52 members who favoured the government’s proposals for power-sharing and an ‘Irish dimension’ but, worryingly for the future stability of any agreement, 26 unionists opposed to the plans (24 unionists were in favour). In July and August the secretary of state, William Whitelaw, held a series of meetings with local parties to discuss the implementation of the government’s plans. Following on from this, between 5 October and 22 November Whitelaw chaired intensive talks at Stormont Castle (the so-called ‘Castle talks’) which led to the announcement that a power-sharing executive including the Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the Alliance Party was to be formed—subject to North–South arrangements being agreed. Even at this stage, however, a majority of unionist representatives as a whole were opposed to the proposals.
Within the Unionist Party the debate over whether to participate in an executive with the SDLP was finely balanced. On 20 November the Ulster Unionist Council (UUC), the Unionist Party’s ruling body, voted narrowly (379 to 369) in favour of power-sharing. As events unfolded, however, there was increasing opposition within the party and calls for Faulkner to resign. From 6 to 9 December a tripartite conference of British and Irish government representatives and local parties was held at Sunningdale, Berkshire. Contrary to the government’s initial proposals, unionist opponents of power-sharing were excluded from the negotiations. Faulkner failed to achieve the unionist objectives of the unequivocal recognition of Northern Ireland by the Republic, the extradition of terrorist suspects from the Republic and the introduction of a policy aimed at improving security. In the following days the perception quickly grew that unionists had lost out in the negotiations at Sunningdale.
A small but significant decision for the future of the Sunningdale deal came on 18 December when Faulkner addressed the North Tyrone Unionist Association, which was viewed as a weather-vane for grass-roots unionist opinion. The OUP leader failed to convince the association of the benefits of the Sunningdale deal and it voted to support anti-Sunningdale unionists instead. After this decision even the pro-Faulkner Belfast Telegraph predicted that the UUC would not support the proposed Council of Ireland.
Political momentum continued to build against Faulkner and the pro-Sunningdale unionists in the following weeks. On 1 January 1974 the Northern Ireland executive assumed power and Faulkner became chief executive, but on 4 January the UUC rejected the Council of Ireland by 427 votes to 374. On 7 January Faulkner resigned as OUP leader although he remained as the chief executive of the Northern Ireland executive. This raised the question of whether the executive was truly representative of local political opinion.

‘Trundling unionists into a united Ireland’
Faulkner’s position was also undermined by developments in the Republic, where Kevin Boland had launched a legal case challenging the validity of the recognition of Northern Ireland given by the Republic’s government in the Sunningdale communiqué. On 16 January the High Court in Dublin ruled that the recognition of Northern Ireland contained in the Sunningdale communiqué was ‘no more than a statement of policy’. Further ammunition for unionist opponents of the Sunningdale deal came on 17 January, when SDLP assembly member Hugh Logue told an audience at Trinity College, Dublin, that the Council of Ireland was ‘the vehicle that would trundle unionists into a united Ireland’. The impact of these developments was reflected in the outcome of the Westminster general election of February 1974, when eleven of the twelve Northern Ireland seats were won by unionists opposed to Sunningdale. Perhaps more significantly, 51 per cent of the vote went to anti-Sunningdale unionists compared to the 13 per cent won by pro-Sunningdale unionists.
In March a minority Labour government took office in London and, despite complaints from anti-Sunningdale unionists, declared that it would continue to support the Northern Ireland executive. Despite this, the outcome of the February general election was clearly a cause for concern for pro-Sunningdale unionists, who realised that the implementation of the Council of Ireland in the existing circumstances was likely to undermine the power-sharing administration as well. Their cause was not helped by an upsurge in the IRA bombing campaign in late March. Above and beyond this there was a perception among unionists of SDLP triumphalism on the issue of the Council of Ireland and of a lack of loyalty to the Northern Ireland executive, as evidenced by the frequent visits of SDLP delegations to Dublin for private talks with the Irish government.

‘Save Ulster’ campaign
While anti-Sunningdale unionists were becoming increasingly frustrated that their views were being ignored, they appeared no closer to bringing down the executive. Politicians organised ‘Save Ulster’ rallies, a ‘Save Ulster’ fund and a petition against Sunningdale, but these appeared to have little impact. Attempts by loyalist politicians to disrupt sittings of the assembly also seemed counter-productive. Although the debate within the unionist community over the political legitimacy of the Sunningdale agreement had been won by its opponents, the deal still appeared to be trundling them towards a united Ireland. In these circumstances anti-Sunningdale unionists and loyalists continued to search for any effective political weapon to use against the agreement.
Loyalists had used industrial stoppages and roadblocks on numerous occasions in the previous years. In March 1972 the Vanguard movement (then a unionist pressure group) had organised an effective two-day strike in protest at the abolition of the Northern Ireland parliament that had brought much of the local economy to a standstill. The strike tactic could, however, also go disastrously wrong. On 7 February 1973 a joint Ulster Defence Association (UDA)/Loyalist Association of Workers (LAW)/Vanguard strike in protest against the internment of UDA members led to widespread violence and was widely condemned within the unionist community. The February 1973 strike also helped to undermine the credibility of the LAW and was a factor in the subsequent attempt by members of Vanguard to create an alternative loyalist workers’ body.

Ulster Workers’ Council
In early November Harland and Wolff shop steward Harry Murray attended a meeting at Vanguard headquarters in Hawthornden Road in east Belfast to discuss forming a new loyalist workers’ organisation. Murray insisted that there be no political or paramilitary control of the new organisation if he was involved. Among those who attended the meeting were Vanguard and UDA members, but they were prepared to accommodate Murray in order to win support at the Harland and Wolff shipyard. Subsequently a level of pretence was maintained, whereby members of political parties and paramilitaries who became involved in the Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC) operated, in Murray’s view, in the role of ‘workers’.
Unionist opposition to power-sharing and the ‘Irish dimension’ was also coalescing elsewhere. On 6 December 1973 Vanguard, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Orange delegates met in the Ulster Hall, Belfast, and formed the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC) to oppose power-sharing. On 10 December loyalist paramilitary groups formed an umbrella organisation, the Ulster Army Council (UAC). As yet, however, there was no indication that the various loyalist organisations would set aside their differences to fight Sunningdale. The UDA, for example, continued to organise roadblocks in Belfast and other towns in protest against the treatment of loyalist prisoners. On 16 January 1974, however, the UDA once again blocked roads in Belfast, Lisburn and Portadown. Significantly, on this occasion it carried out a protest against judges from the Republic attending the Anglo-Irish commission on law enforcement that was linked to the Sunningdale communiqué. Workers, including power workers in Belfast and Ballylumford, stopped work in protest, and the UDA stopped buses, lorries and cars in the city and used them, or chains of individuals, to block roads for an hour from noon to one. Workers at Harland and Wolff and at Short’s aircraft factory also supported the stoppage. Many of these tactics would be used again in May during the UWC strike.

Worsening security situation
Instead of the power-sharing executive leading to an improvement in security, the situation seemed, if anything, to be deteriorating. In January and February 1974 sporadic rioting occurred in Protestant areas of Belfast, with clashes between loyalist paramilitaries and the army. On 16 February two UDA men were killed and another wounded by the army on the Newtownards Road. There was further rioting on the Shankill Road on 23 February and again in east Belfast on 25 February. These events were likely to have been taken into account when the government was considering its security response to the UWC strike less than three months later. In the first four months of 1974, 74 people were killed and claims for £102 million of compensation for damage were lodged. In the midst of this, Edward Heath’s 7 February announcement of a general election led to plans for a loyalist strike in opposition to Sunningdale being postponed. In early March, in the wake of the general election, UDA and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) representatives began sitting in on UWC meetings, bringing a loyalist strike against Sunningdale one step closer.
On 8 April the new Labour secretary of state, Merlyn Rees, and his deputy, Stanley Orme, held what Rees called an ‘angry, disjointed, meeting’ with UWC representatives. The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) rejected Harry Murray and the other UWC members’ demands for fresh Northern Ireland assembly elections. The tone of the meeting was not helped by the mutual antagonism between Orme and the loyalists, who viewed the NIO minister as nothing more than an SDLP mouthpiece. Despite the political crisis, disputes between the various anti-Sunningdale unionist groups continued. On 23 April the UUUC began a three-day conference in Portrush. Paramilitary representatives were excluded from the conference, much to their annoyance; this led them to issue a statement saying that the final initiative lay with them and the UWC.

‘Constitutional stoppage’
In early May Harry Murray and UWC members Billy Kelly and Jim Smyth met UAC representatives on Belfast’s Shankill Road to discuss the strike. Once again there was no agreement as to whether the UWC or the paramilitaries should control the proposed strike, but neither group was prepared to push the issue too far in case it led to further disputes and hindered the chances of the strike’s success. On 9 May the UWC began to prepare the public for the proposed strike by telling the media that if the assembly voted to support the Sunningdale agreement then there would be an all-out ‘constitutional stoppage’. Despite this, paramilitary groups still conducted activities based around their own concerns, and as late as 10 May the UDA and UVF again blocked roads in Belfast for an hour as a protest against the visiting arrangements for loyalist prisoners. On Tuesday 14 May a long-running debate in the assembly on continuing support for Sunningdale drew to a conclusion with the assembly rejecting a motion condemning power-sharing and the Council of Ireland by 44 votes to 28. Harry Murray met loyalist politicians at Stormont and asked them to support the strike. Even though he was not convinced that they would back his ‘constitutional stoppage’, he decided to announce an all-out strike, beginning with a cut-back in power generation to hit industry (this was based on the support of power workers in the electricity generating plants recruited by Billy Kelly).
On 15 May the first power cuts hit, and UDA leader Andy Tyrie decided to throw the weight of his organisation behind the strike. This was followed by roadblocks that stopped people from going to work. On the same day Orme met UWC members accompanied by William Craig (Vanguard), Ian Paisley (DUP), John Laird (anti-Sunningdale Unionist Party) and three ‘armed observers’. Almost inevitably there was no meeting of minds.
While the NIO and the executive continued to believe that the stoppage would fizzle out, strike leaders began organising a coordinating committee to make their efforts more effective. The strike committee was chaired by Vanguard assembly and UDA member Glen Barr and included UWC, paramilitary and political representatives. Significantly, issues involving the use of roadblocks or intimidation tended to be dealt with separately by the paramilitary groups, providing the workers and politicians with ‘plausible deniability’ on these matters.

Dublin and Monaghan bombings
On Saturday 18 May loyalist bombs (later claimed by the UVF) exploded in Dublin and Monaghan, killing 33 people—the greatest loss of life on any single day of the Troubles. Despite the carnage and loss of life, however, the atrocity had remarkably little impact on events in Northern Ireland at the time. By Sunday 19 May unionist support for the strike was becoming firmer. The UUUC steering committee gave public support to the stoppage, and unionist politicians took out a half-page advertisement in the News Letter calling for support for the strike the following day. The executive, on the other hand, appeared to be tearing itself apart. When Unionist Roy Bradford (minister for the environment) called on the secretary of state to negotiate with the UWC, the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon responded that Bradford should no longer be a member of the executive.
On 21 May a high-profile ‘back-to-work’ march in Belfast led by Trades Union Congress general secretary Len Murray took place in Belfast but attracted only 250 people, many of them politicians and peace campaigners. They found themselves being barracked by supporters of the strike—many of them women. The failure of the back-to-work marches highlighted the fact that the initiative now lay with the strikers. The strike leaders increased the pressure on the government by reducing petrol supplies, claiming that the executive had misused the electricity that they were supplying by not cutting power to industry.
On 22 May the executive agreed to the Council of Ireland being ‘phased in’ (i.e. shelved in the short term) after SDLP assembly members reluctantly voted to accept the revised plan by 11–8. By this time, however, events were largely beyond the control of the executive, who looked to the British government to forcibly defeat the strike in the (somewhat unlikely) belief that this would lead to a reversal in unionist opinion. On 24 May British Prime Minister Harold Wilson met Faulkner, Fitt and Alliance leader Oliver Napier for emergency talks at Chequers. On the following evening Wilson made a television broadcast in which he attacked the strikers and spoke of people ‘spending their lives sponging on Westminster and British democracy’. Unionists at large took Wilson’s remarks as an attack on them and confirmed their opinion that Sunningdale was a nationalist settlement for nationalist people. The speech was effectively the final nail in the coffin for the executive.

Executive disintegrates
By now the executive appeared to be on the verge of disintegration. The following day, when Roy Bradford called for talks with the UWC, John Hume called for Bradford to resign from the executive. On 27 May the army took control of 21 filling stations in an attempt to weaken the strike’s stranglehold (in an interview with the author Rees implied that this was a political gesture to the executive as, for technical reasons, the strikers could supply more fuel and electricity than the government). The UWC retaliated by threatening a complete shutdown of industry.
On 28 May electricity generation was expected to cease, with widespread effects on industry as well as domestic use. The sewerage system was also deteriorating. Faulkner asked the NIO to open talks with the strike leaders; Rees refused, and Faulkner and the other unionist ministers resigned from the executive. The SDLP wanted to continue the executive without unionist representation but were dismissed by the secretary of state. News of the collapse of the executive was welcomed with bonfires and dancing in the streets in Protestant areas of Belfast and across Northern Ireland.
The following day saw arguments among loyalists involved in the strike as to whether to continue the stoppage. With the resignation of Faulkner, however, the impetus had also gone out of the strike and support for it was beginning to collapse. The leaders therefore took the pragmatic decision to call off the strike, even though they had not achieved their objective of new assembly elections.
Since 1974 supporters of the Sunningdale deal have argued that, had it been given a chance, it would have stabilised the political situation and would eventually have led to a substantial improvement in the security situation by drawing support away from ‘the men of violence’. The reality was, however, that even those participating in the executive appeared barely willing to compromise enough to make the deal work. When the political and security pressures created by those opposed to the deal were added to this situation, it was always highly unlikely that the Sunningdale deal would work.

Gordon Gillespie is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University, Belfast.

Further reading:
D. Anderson, Fourteen May days: the inside story of the loyalist strike of 1974 (Dublin, 1994).
P. Bew and G. Gillespie, Northern Ireland: a chronology of the Troubles 1968–1999 (Dublin, 1999).
A. Currie, All Hell will break loose (Dublin, 2004).
P. Devlin, The fall of the NI Executive (Belfast, 1975).


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