CAIN Web Service

'Paisley' by Ed Moloney and Andy Pollak (1986)



[CAIN_Home]
[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]
UUAC STRIKE: [Menu] [Reading] [Summary] [Background] [Chronology] [Main Pages] [Assessment] [Legacy] [Sources]

Text: Ed Moloney and Andy Pollak... Page Compiled: Brendan Lynn

The following extract has been contributed by the authors Ed Moloney and Andy Pollak, with the permission of the publisher, Poolbeg Press Ltd. The views expressed in these extracts do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
Front Cover of Book These extracts have been taken from the book:

Paisley
by Ed Moloney and Andy Pollak

Published by Poolbeg Press Ltd., 1986
ISBN 0-905169-75-1

Cover Photograph by Derek Spiers/Report

First published by:
Poolbeg Press Ltd.,
123 Grange Hill,
Baldoyle Industrial Estate,
Baldoyle,
Dublin 13, Ireland.
Tel: + 353-1-832 1477
Fax: + 353-1-832 1430
E: info@poolbeg.com

These extracts are included on the CAIN site by permission of the author and the publisher. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the author. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.


From the back cover:

The Rev. Ian Paisley dominates the Northern Ireland scene like a malign colossus. He is the single most controversial figure to have emerged in Ireland in the past 40 years. This is the first definitive study of the man, his politics and religion. Two of Ireland's leading journalists, Ed Moloney and Andy Pollak, umcover new material which throws a fascinating light on the turbalent events leading to the overthrow of half a century of Unionist rule.

They trace Paisley's involvement in politcs back to the anti-Catholic campaigns and Unionist elections of the 40s. They reveal the prominent role he played in the 50s in Ulster Protestant Action, a shadow loyalist group out of which sprang the murderous UVF. They describe how the anti-civil rights campaign he led in the 60s helped propel Northern Ireland towards its present violent 'Troubles'. And they explore the strange world of his Free Presbyterian Church.

With his combination of old-style fundamentalist religion and traditional Unionist politics, Paisley holds an extraordinary appeal for hundreds of thousands of Northern Protestants. This book shows how an understanding of Paisley is crucial to an understanding of the prevaling ethos of the majority in Northern Ireland.


CONTENTS

Introduction 1
Part 1
One A Separate Youth 7
Two Building A Church 42
Three God, Guns and Politics 77
Four The Traitor on the Bridge 105
Five The Whirlwind 145
Six A Cat on a Hot Brick 180
Seven The Bog of Bitterness 192
Part 2
Eight The Fearful Fundamentalists 215
Nine For God and Ulster 261
Ten At the Grass Roots 301
Part 3
Eleven The Politics of the Wee Protestant Hall 319
Twelve The Grand Old Duke of York
    To The Brink And Back Again
352
363
Thirteen The Confederacy of the Beast 402
Fourteen A Man out of Season 417
Fifteen A Prophet Among His Own People 433
Notes 441
Bibliography 445
Index 449


Chapter Twelve
The Grand Old Duke
of York

[Extract pp.363-380]
TO THE BRINK AND BACK AGAIN

 

I’m finished if this doesn’t work.
Ian Paisley quoted by one of the 1977 Loyalist strike leaders.

 

The 1974 UWC strike not only rehabilitated Ian Paisley, it convinced him that the strike tactic could be used again to advance his own and the Loyalist cause. Three years after the fall of Sunningdale that conviction led him into the greatest political miscalculation of his career and brought him to the verge of quitting politics altogether.

The Loyalist strike 1977 - "Paisley’s strike", as the public saw it - was an ignominious failure which many thought would help to strengthen Paisley’s moderate Official Unionist rivals and thus pave the way for a political settlement between Nationalists and Unionists. The strike in fact had the opposite effect. Although an operational disaster, the strike touched a Protestant nerve, an achievement which was given eloquent expression by substantial DUP gains in the local council elections which immediately followed it.

The gains made by Paisley’s DUP in that election were all at the expense of the Official Unionists. They killed off any hope of moderation from that quarter and renewed Paisley’s faith in his political instincts. But they also destroyed his last Loyalist political rival - the remnants of Bill Craig’s once powerful Vanguard party. From then on Unionist politics would be dominated by a titanic struggle between the DUP and the Official Unionists - the only survivors from a decade of Protestant political turbulence and fractures.

In 1977, Paisley snatched survival from impending obliteration and it was ruthlessness which did it - not his this time, but that of his able and devoted lieutenant, Peter Robinson. As Paisley, for the first time, in his career, reeled directionless in the face of defeat, Robinson took charge and rescued him and his party.

A political vacuum and a cynical change in British security policy provided the backcloth to the 1977 strike. On the political front, the collapse of the Executive in 1974 was followed a year later by the Constitutional Convention, an attempt by the British to cajole the political parties into reaching agreement among themselves.

The Convention was a failure - the majority Unionists, still in the UUUC alliance, stubbornly recommended a return to Stormont majority rule, a proposal which was angrily condemned by the SDLP and rejected by the British. When it finally folded up amid uproar in March 1976, the Convention had left one important casualty in its wake - Bill Craig, whose stubborn espousal of Voluntary Coalition split Vanguard apart. The anti-Craigites re-formed themselves under the leadership of Ernie Baird, a right wing East Belfast Presbyterian and the prosperous owner of a chain of chemist shops. The remnants of Vanguard were re-christened the United Ulster Unionist Movement (UUUM).

The Convention’s failure marked an end, at least for the foreseeable future, to political experiments - it was back to uninterrupted Direct Rule by British politicians. The British once again turned to a security solution and, aided by a Provisional IRA ceasefire in 1975, followed by protracted and unsuccessful negotiations with Northern Ireland Office officials, used the breathing space to devise an ingenious new security policy.

It had many names - "Ulsterisation", "Normalisation", "Criminalisation", "the primacy of the police" and "the Castlereagh conveyor belt" among them. What it amounted to was this, Internment and all its trappings would be phased out and all terrorist-type cases would be dealt with by the courts. The Long Kesh internment complex would be replaced by a modern H Block-shaped prison. Special Category status, another important element of internment which was regarded by Republican and Loyalist prisoners as recognition of their political status would also be phased out - all prisoners would be treated like ordinary criminals with no special privileges.

The most significant change, though, was in the field. The British Army’s leading role in the battle against the IRA would be reduced and their duties would be gradually taken over by local security forces: the 90 per cent Protestant, RUC and the 98 per cent Protestant, Ulster Defence Regiment.

Northern Ireland is still living, and in some cases dying, with the consequences of those changes. Catholic criticism of RUC interrogation methods and of the judiciary intensified but in the jails the attempt to criminalise prisoners was resisted by Republicans, at first by refusing to wear prison uniform but eventually by a hunger strike that cost the lives of ten people inside the H Blocks and sixty-one outside. It also gave the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, a springboard to mount a successful entry into electoral politics.

The first and most immediate effect of the new British security policy, however, was felt by the Protestant community. As the RUC and the UDR took over more and more of the British Army's role so their casualty rate increased.

In the early years of the "Troubles", from 1970 to 1974, the British Army had borne the brunt of IRA attacks - deaths of British soldiers accounted for nearly twenty per cent of the 1,380 death toll during that period. "Ulsterisation" of security meant that it was increasingly UDR and RUC men, the vast majority of them Protestants, who were dying in their place. In 1976, the first year of "Ulsterisation" they suffered forty-two deaths, four times than the British Army. It was also their worst year since the murderous slaughter of 1972 and nearly all the dead were Protestants. The British had reduced the cost of staying in Northern Ireland and released battalions to serve in NATO but at considerable cost in Northern Ireland.

The immediate effect was to intensify Protestant demands for tougher security measures, particularly in rural and Border areas where most of the killings had taken place. In the long term it meant that sectarian antagonisms would be heightened throughout the whole community - Loyalist allegations of an IRA campaign of "genocide" date from this period. The cynicism of the British move was noted by the Orange Order in a wide ranging review of British policy in early 1977: "the ‘Ulsterisation’ of the security battle represents nothing more than the ‘Ulsterisation’ of the victims".

The political vacuum and the new emphasis on security were given physical shape by Merlyn Rees’ replacement as Northern Ireland Secretary in August 1976. The new man was Roy Mason, a blunt, pipe-smoking, former coalminer from Barnsley in Yorkshire. He came to Northern Ireland, much to the dismay of Nationalists, with a name for being an "Army man", a reputation earned during a spell in the Ministry of Defence. It wasn’t long before he signalled his intentions. In his first speech he spoke of the IRA "reeling" under the weight of security pressure. A few months later he candidly told the political parties that he had no plans for a political initiative unless they had.

Mason was popular with the Official Unionists. They liked his commitment to the war against the IRA and they were happy with his reluctance to launch political experiments. Direct Rule was preferable to the uncharted waters of protest and the uncomfortable prospect of alliances with paramilitants and Paisleyites which would inevitably follow another British attempt at partnership government.

Mason also secured extra financial help for Northern Ireland from the Labour Cabinet and at Westminster Harold Wilson’s successor, James Callaghan, negotiated a deal with the Official Unionist parliamentary leader, James Molyneaux, under which support for his minority government would be exchanged for extra House of Commons seats - most of which would inevitably go to the Official Unionists. In the respectable, cautious, middle class eyes of Official Unionists, the Union was more secure, Northern Ireland more prosperous and the IRA more resolutely pursued than at any time since the "Troubles" started.

To Loyalists of Paisley’s ilk, for whom a state of permanent insecurity is part of the natural order, the relative tranquillity of the Mason era was, by sharp contrast, deeply unsettling. It was this, as much as the rising death toll of RUC and UDR men, which led to the 1977 strike. As one of its leaders put it: "Things were slipping and flagging and people were getting into the way of Direct Rule. We thought we’d give it a wee bit of a jab."

Loyalist political dislocation was shown in various ways. The UDA and Loyalists like John McKeague began espousing the idea of Ulster independence. They were spurred in this direction by the belief, shared by Loyalist politicians like Baird, that Britain was secretly withdrawing. The NIO’s talks with the IRA had planted this seed and it was watered during 1976 with decisions to close factories like Rolls-Royce and the Royal Navy’s re-fitting yard in Belfast. The pro-independence lobby was not confined to Loyalists - some in the SDLP flirted with it as did elements in the IRA.

The Loyalist mainstream, however, including Paisley, stayed with the traditional and familiar demand to have the old majority rule Stormont parliament returned. The only problem was that there was no chance that any British government would voluntarily grant it.

Many in the Official Unionist Party appeared to give only token support to that demand while others were, under Enoch Powell’s influence, beginning a cautious move towards integration. Loyalists, however, wanted action. Following Westminster’s rejection of the Convention report in early 1976 they moved to set up machinery to keep the demand alive and kicking.

On the urging of Baird, a Loyalist Action Council, later given the unwieldy title of the United Unionist Action Council (UUAC), technically a sub-committee of the UUUC, was set up to agitate for devolution and better security. The Official Unionists quickly made their disapproval of the Action Council known.

The Action Council soon acquired a semi-paramilitary wing. Loyalists in Counties Tyrone and Armagh, many of them former "B" Specials, set up an organisation called the Ulster Service Corps (USC). In May, following a declaration from Paisley and Baird that they were not prepared "to sit idly by and watch our province being destroyed" by the IRA, the USC announced plans to mount overt and covert patrols, some armed with legal weapons. Their action was also a calculated defiance of the authorities, a challenge to the State’s monopoly of security powers.

That autumn, as local security force deaths mounted, the lobby for more direct action intensified. The USC staged more roadblocks and in September the authorities moved against them. Five USC men from County Armagh were arrested - one of them was Robert Murdock, the Portadown Free Presbyterian who had faced UVF explosives charges in 1966 and 1969. The Action Council stuck up posters in Loyalist areas which read: "How long before you join the Direct Rule death toll?". In November, Paisley told MPs at Westminster that he had been out on patrol with the USC in Portadown. The patrols were necessary, he said, "because of the continuing apparent lack of will on behalf of our Government to defeat the terrorists in our midst".

The Action Council, which included the DUP, Baird’s party, the UWC, the Apprentice Boys of Derry, the Royal Black Preceptory and the Independent Orange Order began in October and November to seriously discuss plans for a repeat of the 1974 strike. The aims this time were to be radically different. In 1974 the goal was to bring down Sunningdale; this time the strike’s objectives were to bring back a majority rule Stormont and to force the British to introduce a new tougher security policy.

Paisley for one was convinced that the tactic could work again. Significantly the Official Unionist leader, Harry West, and the Orange Order chief, Martin Smyth disagreed. They both attended some early Action Council meetings but pulled out as the strike plans were laid, leaving Paisley isolated. The Action Council included some of the paramilitary groups involved in the 1974 strike - the UDA, the Orange Volunteers and Down Orange Welfare - but the absence of the Official Unionist badly weakened it.

These moves were paralleled by signs of increased militancy within Paisley’s DUP. According to Clifford Smyth, who was then secretary of the UUUC, Peter Robinson approached him in June 1976 with the suggestion that the party should set up a paramilitary wing. According to a senior UDA figure, his organisation was also approached later that year by DUP member with a request for assistance in setting up the force - in particular the DUP man wanted drawings of home made rocket launchers, The ideas came to nought and the DUP, and Paisley in particular, was forced to go to the UDA, still the largest paramilitary group, to ask for help.

Relations between the three UUUC leaders and the paramilitaries had deteriorated since the 1974 strike. The paramilitaries wanted their crucial role in the strike officially recognised by being given a seat on the UUUC executive but the politicians refused, citing the illegality of some groups. Paramilitary resentment at being dropped alter they had outlived their usefulness, boiled over on occasions. During one meeting of UUUC politicians in Craig’s Vanguard headquarters in 1975, two armed UDA leaders from North Belfast burst in threatening to shoot them - fortunately for the politicians, a senior UUUC figure managed to calm them down.

Paisley played a prominent role in negotiations with paramilitaries during this period. One senior paramilitant recalled one important and secret meeting in the Martyrs Memorial between Paisley and a group of paramilitary leaders which included two representatives of the illegal UVF - Billy Mitchell and Ken Gibson, both of whom, ironically, were former Free Presbyterians. At the meeting, according to this man: "Paisley gave an undertaking that he would try to get us recognised within the UUUC".

When a few weeks later the UUUC decided to exclude both the UWC and the paramilitaries from membership, the paramilitaries, in particular the UVF, turned against Paisley. "Shortly after that all the groups held a conference to work out our strategy for independence and one group under Mitchell had the job of looking at the military implications. I remember some of them talking about bumping Paisley off because of the way we had been treated."

Paisley's relations with the UDA leader, Andy Tyrie had also soured. The UDA had initially supported Craig’s Voluntary Coalition proposal and strongly criticised Paisley and West for their opposition. Paisley replied to the criticism in swingeing terms:

The brazen effrontery and confounded cheek of Mr Tyrie baffles description. He is a man who leads an organisation whose members in the past months have been tried in the courts and have been pleaded guilty or have been found guilty of the most diabolical of crimes.

They have murdered Protestants as well as Roman Catholics in the most sadistic and inhuman ways and have sought to intimidate decent people who seek to carry out their business in a proper manner.

Stung by his attack, the UDA considered releasing a dossier to the press containing details of "talks Mr Paisley has had with Loyalist paramilitary groups and also the use of Loyalist funds", but stayed its hand.

During 1976, as the plans for strike action hardened, Paisley was forced to eat humblepie and apologise to Tyrie. Unable to create its own paramilitary wing the DUP needed the UDA’s skills in intimidating "decent people who seek to carry out their business in a proper manner" to enforce the strike. Lengthy talks took place between Tyrie and Paisley and Tyrie extracted a price for the UDA’s co-operation. "We deliberately put Paisley and Baird into the front line; it wasn’t going to he another case of the LDA carrying the whole can", recalled a UDA member.

During the last half of 1976 and the spring of 1977 - as the strike plans took firmer shape - Paisley made the first of several mistakes. He alienated the Official Unionists and the Orange Order, two bodies whose neutrality at least during the strike would he crucial. In June 1976 he leaked details of secret meetings between the Orange leader, Martin Smyth and the SDLP. As a result Smyth, whose intense dislike for Paisley dated back to the 1950s, was heckled during Orange demonstrations in July - it was hardly calculated to make him sympathetic to Paisley’s plans.

In April 1977, only three weeks away from the start of the strike, Paisley used the DUP conference to launch a vitriolic attack on a whole litany of past Official Unionist traitors from O'Neill to Craig. They included members of Harry West’s party who had been tempted during the Convention, he claimed, to make a deal with the SDLP by the bait of "a Government car, a Ministerial office, and so many thousands a year". When the strike started, the active opposition of both the Orange Order and the OUP was a significant factor in its failure.

As 1976 turned into 1977 a decision in principle to launch the strike had been taken - Paisley signalled it by announcing that he was thinking of boycotting Westminster in protest at British security failures. By that stage not only had the UDA commuted itself to the strike hut the Ulster Workers Council, the people who had organised factory closures and the critical pulling of the plugs in the power stations in 1974, were on board.

The UWC leadership had changed in the intervening years. Some leaders had gone "moderate" and had been sacked while others just drifted away. Loyalist paramilitary leaders suspected that Paisley had had a hand in most of the changes and was trying to take over the UWC. The two most important 1974 veterans left were Jim Smyth, the eloquent, former Rolls-Royce shop steward and Billy Kelly, the small, shy, bespectacled union convenor in one of the small Belfast power stations who, in 1974, had won over the power workers in the key Ballylumford power station. That alone had ensured the strike’s success.

Kelly was a strong Paisley supporter and a passionate believer in British-Israelism. After the 1977 strike he joined the Free Presbyterian Church in Omagh, County Tyrone and was involved in a bitter split there when the minister opposed the growing influence of Kelly’s élitist and extreme British-Israeli supporters. During the run up to the 1977 strike, he assured the Action Council that he had talked to the Ballylumford power workers and had secured their support for industrial action.

The second and most important mistake made by Paisley and the strike leaders was to believe him. Kelly, in fact, had barely consulted the Ballylumford workers at all - when the strike started their resentment over this denied Paisley and the Action Council the support of the one group of workers who could have stopped the wheels of industry from turning.

When the Action Council discovered that Kelly had misled them and that the promised co-operation of other key sectors, like the petrol tanker drivers, was also fictional, it was too late to stop.

The bearer of the bad news was Jim Smyth who had doubted Kelly’s assurances from the start and had decided to check up for himself. "Smyth discovered that Kelly’s key man at Ballylumford turned out to be the man who worked at the gate. Smyth met him with Kelly and asked him about the workers’ support and he was saying things like ‘I haven’t asked so-and-so because I don’t work on the same shift but I hope to see him before the strike’. This was only four weeks before the strike and none of the 1974 people had been talked to. Smyth couldn’t believe it," recalled an Action Council member.

The UDA and the other paramilitaries didn’t believe Smyth and neither, to begin with, did Paisley. Smyth also saw Baird and spent six hours trying to talk him out of the strike. Baird was unmoved: "He said no. We’re too committed - we’ve said too much in statements and have committed our people", said an Action Council member.

A week before the strike Smyth again checked around Ballylumford, the Coolkeeragh power station, the Harland and Wolff shipyard and Shorts aircraft factory and discovered that most of their workers were either opposed to the strike or were deeply confused. "They just couldn’t see how a strike would achieve the aims we were after", said one strike organiser.

The UDA insisted that their own intelligence indicated that there was support for the strike and they urged that it should go ahead - in fact the organisation was divided, with some key areas like West Belfast opposed to the strike. Paisley was, however, "shaken" by the news. "He kept insisting that we have support in the grassroots, our people expect us to do something and so do the relatives of the security forces. He knew there was a risk that if he lost the DUP would be pilloried, but if he won, he knew that the Official Unionists would lose badly", remembered one Action Council member.

Paisley’s doubts did, though, surface at the Action Council meeting which decided to launch the strike, held in the DUP's Ava Avenue HQ in South Belfast on 23 April. He voted against the strike and only one other significant group, the Belfast UWC, supported him. Everyone else, including the UWC’s rural members, voted for it. There were also differences about the strike demands. Paisley was alone in advocating that the demand for majority rule should not be included - "he said British opposition to the Convention report was so adamant that we’d get nowhere and that it would be a liability", recalled one who was at the meeting - while everyone else wanted both tougher security and majority rule as the strike’s major demands

The trigger for the strike came on 19 April when the five Portadown Ulster Service Corps members arrested the previous September appeared in court charged with operating illegal roadblocks. The centre of Portadown was brought to a standstill by hundreds of Loyalists as Paisley, flanked by Baird and Tyrie, told them they were beginning a campaign that would lead to the restoration of Stormont, the return of security to local hands the "extermination" of the IRA.

On 26 April, the Action Council delivered an ultimatum to Roy Mason. He had seven days in which to show a new determination to defeat the IRA and willingness to implement the Convention report. Otherwise there would be an indefinite strike. The Official Unionists retorted with an appeal to Protestants to ignore the strike and to go on working normally.

As the Action Council well knew, Mason would never grant their demands. So at midnight on Monday 2 May, with the Official Unionists and Orange Order actively hostile, the Action Council itself divided on major issues, the key power workers unconsulted and workers in major Belfast factories confused or in outright opposition, Paisley and his Loyalist allies began the second major challenge to Westminster’s authority in three years.

There were other important differences between this strike and 1974. Roy Mason’s decisiveness was one. Before the strike started he promised firm action against the strikers, ruled out the possibility of negotiating with them and committed the British Arms to underpinning essential services. An extra 1,200 troops were flown in on the eve of the strike.

Mason also ensured that Government policy was consistent and well-informed throughout. A three man committee composed of the NIO’s Permanent Secretary, Sir Brian Cubbon, the NIO's Chief Information Officer, David Gilliland and a member of the British Security Services was set up to advise him. It met every morning at 8 a.m. to review overnight events and that day's policy options, and met Mason at 9 a.m. when final decisions were taken. Any Protestants who imagined they might be dealing with another Merlyn Rees were quickly disabused.

The British had also learned important lessons from their 1974 mistakes. One of these was in the crucial area of propaganda and public relations which in 1974 had been virtually surrendered to the UWC. During the 1977 strike, in contrast, the NIO’s press office operated 24 hours a day, pumping out hourly statements from 5 a.m. onwards and holding frequent Ministerial press conferences to disseminate the Government’s view. Nor was there any repeat of Harold Wilson’s disastrous "spongers" jibe.

The unemployment problem, which had worsened considerably since 1974, was skilfully exploited. Mason and his Ministers constantly emphasised the threat to inward investment posed by the strike and other groups, the trade unions, business, organisations and some Protestant churches echoed it. The British thus had a PR edge on the strikers throughout the protest and this became particularly evident in disputes with the Action Council over the numbers of people at work.

Paisley’s high media profile, which had been his great asset in 1974, inflicted a mortal wound on the Action Council. He dominated its press conferences and pushed all the other participants into the background. On the eve of the strike, in an extraordinarily careless and completely uncharacteristic move, he also staked his political career on the strike’s success, declaring: "I am only remaining in public life to see the thing through, and if it fails then my voice will no longer be heard".

The combined effect was to personalise the strike, making it appear as "Paisley’s strike". In contrast the 1974 strike had been successful partly because it was viewed as a united and general Protestant protest dominated by no single person. Paisley’s dominance succeeded only in highlighting Official Unionist and Orange opposition. This discouraged support from Protestants who might have been sympathetic to the strike’s aims but were loath to identify so closely with a strike leader who had built his career by attacking and dividing Protestant institutions. Paisley was incapable by himself of uniting and leading all the disparate sections of Unionism.

On 3 May, the first day of the strike, it became clear that intimidation would be the organisers’ principal weapon. Gangs of up to 100 UDA men roamed the streets "persuading" factories and shops to close. Shipyard workers, who had voted against the strike at a mass meeting, were told their cars would be burned if they stayed at work and a bomb damaged the Bangor to Belfast railway line, the main commuter line from East Belfast and the dormitory suburbs.

The next day there was more of the same. The UDA were again out on the streets and the RUC reported 400 complaints of intimidation in Belfast. The UDA were, however, anxious to avoid direct confrontation with the police or Army and no roadblocks were set up. Nevertheless the strike appeared to be biting. A lot of large factories in Belfast closed and commercial life in towns like Ballymena, Coleraine, Lurgan and Portadown came to a standstill. The strikers had also scored a major achievement when the important cross-channel port of Larne closed down.

The turning point in the strike came early in the morning of the third day, Wednesday 4 May, outside the UDA’s headquarters on the Newtownards Road in East Belfast when the paramilitaries, frustrated at their lack of success, erected their first road block to prevent shipyard workers getting into work. There at 8 a.m., gangs of UDA men clashed for an hour with the RUC’s anti-riot, Special Patrol Group in what appeared to be a confrontation deliberately engineered by the authorities. The riot started when the police moved in to remove a makeshift barricade constructed of beer barrels and ended with the successful clearing of the road of both rioters and obstructions. During the riot the UDA Commander, Andy Tyrie, appeared on the scene shouting angrily at the police and threatening "aggravation" everywhere.

He had, as he later admitted, "fallen into the trap" of confronting the very security forces whose safety the strike was aiming to improve. Furthermore, the RUC had signalled right on the UDA’s doorstep its determination to deal firmly with Loyalist roadblocks, one of the most effective weapons of the 1974 strike - by the end of the strike they had taken down a further 700.

Political pressure on the Action Council increased after that. West called for an end to the strike but protected his Loyalist flanks with a parallel demand for better security. Craig also joined in, calling the strike a "debacle". His Vanguard party had summed up Loyalist confusion over the strike tactic with a statement on its eve: "A strike can only bring something down -like the Assembly in 1974 - it cannot build anything up".

Intimidation, though, increased, much to Paisley’s embarrassment. In some areas Loyalists stoned police landrovers and in North Belfast a police station was bombed. By Thursday, the RUC had logged 1,000 complaints of intimidation.

Confronted with the allegations and his own association with bully boy tactics and violence, Paisley hopped between bald denials, disassociation and ingenious and extravagant counter-allegations. On the first day of the strike he said: "Whatever happens out there is no responsibility of mine. If the British Army and Mr Mason bring about circumstances in which this happens, that is their business."

On the second day he accused the authorities intimidating the strikers and maintained, to the astonishment of observers, that if the strikers were engaged in intimidation then that was "an indictment of the RUC" which had utterly failed in its duty. When Mason pointed out that all the Westminster parties had condemned intimidation, Paisley lost his temper: "When I consider the drunkenness, lewdness, immorality and filthy language of many of its [the House of Commons] members, I care absolutely nothing for their opinions." In contrast, Paisley condemned the UDA after the Newtonards Road riot, promised it would never happen again and pledged an end to roadblocks.

Paisley’s attitude towards intimidation irritated UDA leaders. They felt that he was distancing himself from it in public while inside the privacy of the Action Council’s meetings his DUP members had sanctioned its use.

By the fifth day, Friday 6 May, it was clear that the strike was fast losing ground. More and more people were getting into work, buses and trains were operating normally, petrol was freely available and the RUC was dealing firmly with roadblocks.

All this was possible because the 450 workers at Ballylumford, where two-thirds of Northern Ireland’s electricity is generated, had not joined the strike. By refusing to join, the power workers had ensured sufficient power for industry and had forced the organisers to rely more and more on physical intimidation. Billy Kelly had promised that electricity output would be reduced to 30 per cent of normal within three days - not only had that failed to materialise but Kelly himself took ill and was hospitalised two days after the strike started.

At Ballylumford, Paisley was outmanoeuvred by old fashioned trade union wheeling and dealing. One sparsely attended meeting during the first two days had voted for the strike but when it was clear that a majority of the other workers would still be opposed, a delegation, led by some shop stewards, decided to meet Mason and relay the results back to a mass meeting which would take the final decision.

On Thursday 5 May, they travelled up to Stormont Castle where Mason unveiled a security package which he had been working on before the strike started. The RUC’s strength would be increased to 6,500 and they would have modern weapons and vehicles, he said. The full-time UDR complement would also be raised to 1,800; there would be ten new RUC Divisional Mobile Support Units (DMSU’s) - an updated version of the Special Patrol Groups - a review of anti-terrorist laws with a view to increasing prison sentences and a greater emphasis on SAS covert operations by the British Army. Mason signed a statement to that effect in the presence of the delegation.

It did the trick. The next day, much to Paisley’s chagrin, the Ballylumford workers voted against joining the strike by nearly a three to two majority. Paisley tried to put a brave face on the reversal by claiming that the mass meeting at Ballylumford had been unrepresentative of the key electricity workers who, he maintained, were in favour of the strike. The managing director, senior executives and canteen staff had all been included in the vote, he said. He went on to maintain that the strike had in fact been a success, pointing to Mason’s security package as evidence, and he accused the media of "lying propaganda" in their claims that industry and commerce were working normally.

More ominously, he said that the people of Lame were "very sore" with the power workers. Privately, the Action Council let it be known that intimidation of the Ballylumford workforce would be stepped up.

Defeat now stared Paisley in the face. On the Saturday he decided to have one more try at talking the power workers round. If that failed it looked as if his political career was over. He drove down to Lame with Baird and a delegation from the Action Council to speak to the workers for the last time.

It was a grim, depressing journey full of foreboding for Paisley. One of those with him recalled: "On the way down, and I can remember it clearly, he was at a crisis point and he and everyone else knew it. ‘I’m finished if this doesn’t work’, he said and then he started to tell us that he didn’t need to be in politics and that he wanted to spend more time in his church work. As we arrived he confided to me that he felt he was on his last legs and had completely lost the will to win. He was at the lowest ebb I’ve ever seen him".

Paisley’s forebodings were well founded. The workers listened politely and then gave him an ultimatum - full power or no power at all. They would only come out en bloc - not in support of the strike but because of intimidation and fears of violence - and furthermore it would have to be a total walk out which would result in a complete blackout. There would be no power for essential services; hospitals, old people’s homes and the like would be without any heat or electricity and, inevitably, there would be deaths.

Paisley backed down and to all intents and purposes the strike was over. In the middle of the next week he and Baird were arrested at a roadblock in Ballymena in a last desperate attempt to boost the strike by their martyrdom but whatever slim chance of success that had was undermined by the paramilitaries.

Their reaction to Paisley caving into the Ballylumford ultimatum was furious. The UDA said they would have called the power workers’ bluff and lived with the consequences. Paisley got the blame: "The rank and file didn’t like it at all. We were being led by a man with no balls and from then he was the Grand Old Duke of York to us", recalled one UDA member.

In desperation the paramilitaries intensified the violence and intimidation the following week with disastrous, self-mutilating results. On Tuesday 10 May, the UVF shot dead a Protestant busman in North Belfast and the UDR son of one of the strike leaders was killed when a massive bomb destroyed a petrol station in the same area. Another man was killed as he assembled a fire bomb. Intimidation had failed to stop Ballylumford, fewer and fewer businesses were affected and by this stage even Lame was operating normally.

On Thursday 12 May, after a brief meeting of the Action Council, the strike was called off "to give Mr Mason the opportunity to turn the additional security forces onto the IRA". Paisley moved fast and ingeniously to limit the damage. He withdrew his promise to leave politics, he announced, on the pretext that the strike had been a success in his North Antrim constituency. He also claimed a wider victory, maintaining that Mason’s security package would not have materialised without the strike.

The strike’s failure was, however, widely seen as a victory for Paisley’s rivals in the Official Unionist party. That was expected to be reflected in the local council elections on 18 May, days after the end of the strike. Ironically the strike date had been chosen with the council elections in mind; but instead of having their triumph confirmed at the polls, the DUP were now apparently facing the prospect of a severe bruising.

The results startled everyone. The DUP more than doubled its total of councillors to 74, won outright control of its first council, Ballymena, and gained seats in all the 23 councils contested by the party. The Official Unionist lost 35 seats, nearly all to the DUP, while Baird’s party was all but obliterated. The results were seen as a vindication of the strike and evidence of support for Paisley’s forthrightness. More significantly the election had left only two Unionist parties to contend for the Protestant vote. The stage was set for the professionalisation of the DUP in preparation for the destruction of the Official Unionists. The DUP had been hauled back from the edge of defeat.

The truth was that the DUP had been saved by Paisley’s young deputy, Peter Robinson. On Sunday 8 May, the day after the ultimatum from the Ballylumford workers, he and Jim Smyth met to discuss the next step. "Smyth told him the strike was all but finished and that the DUP should try to salvage what they could", recalled a strike leader. "Robinson agreed and together with some DUP councillors they decided to use the second week of the strike for the election by switching all their energies to the council campaign and to attack the Official Unionists for undermining the strike. Robinson went to see Paisley and he was so grateful for any ideas by this stage that he immediately agreed".

The DUP took that decision unilaterally, Ieaving their allies, particularly Baird’s party, to fend for themselves. The destruction of Baird’s party had been in senior DUP minds long before the strike, as Clifford Smyth, purged from the party in late 1976, could testify: "I remember walking in to headquarters one day and there they were talking about how Ernie Baird’s people would be destroyed". The strike headquarters were abandoned by all but the UWC, a few of Baird’s people and the odd paramilitary. Apart from an occasional appearance by Paisley, the DUP had discarded the strike for the hustings.

During the second week Robinson "went out with a great deal of gusto on the basis that there were two ways to go - down the plughole or out campaigning. And it worked. Paisley was completely rudderless and Robinson rescued him", said an Action Council leader.

Baird’s party was not the only casualty. The UDA was also severely damaged by the strike’s failure. In the months following the strike the RUC took advantage of its new initiative and cut swathes into UDA membership by arresting and charging many of its most active middle level leaders. Morale dipped badly and for the next four years the UDA was hard pressed keeping its organisation intact. Of the principal participants in the 1977 strike only the DUP, by ruthless concentration on its self-interest, had prospered.

 


CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within the University of Ulster.


go to the top of this page go to the top of this page
Last modified :