CAIN Web Service
Ulster Workers' Council Strike - Background Information
Text: Martin Melaugh ... Research: Martin Melaugh and Fionnuala McKenna
Material is added to this site on a regular basis - information on this page may change
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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