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Ulster Workers' Council Strike - Chronology of the Strike



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Text: Martin Melaugh ... Research: Martin Melaugh and Fionnuala McKenna
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This is a draft of the chronology for the Ulster Workers' Council (UWC) strike of May 1974.


Chronology of some relevant events prior to the UWC strike

Tuesday 20 March 1973
The British government published a White Paper, Northern Ireland Constitutional Proposals, outlining plans for a Northern Ireland Assembly. The proposed Assembly would be elected by proportional representation (PR) with 78 members sitting at Stormont. In addition to having a power-sharing executive the White Paper also proposed a 'Council of Ireland' to deal with matters of mutual interest between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Thursday 28 June 1973
Elections to the proposed Northern Ireland Assembly took place across the region. There are 52 members returned to the Assembly who were notionally in favour of the proposals in the White Paper, and there were 26 members who were against the proposals.

Tuesday 31 July 1973
The first meeting of the Northern Ireland Assembly took place at Stormont amid noisy scenes of protest.

Friday 5 October 1973
Representatives of three parties, the Unionist Party (UP), the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI), met for talks in Stormont. The talks were about the possible formation of an executive to govern Northern Ireland. The three parties met on a number of subsequent occasions.

Wednesday 21 November 1973
Agreement was reached on the formation of a power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive. The Executive was to be composed of 11 voting members (6 Unionists, 4 Social Democratic and Labour Party; SDLP, and 1 Alliance Party) and 4 non-voting members (2 SDLP, 1 Unionist, and 1 Alliance Party).

Thursday 6 December 1973
A conference on Northern Ireland was held in Sunningdale, England. The Sunningdale Agreement sets out the parameters for the 'Irish Dimension' in the government of Northern Ireland.

Tuesday 1 January 1974
The Northern Ireland Executive took office.

Thursday 28 February 1974
Westminster elections took place across the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland the election was in effect a referendum on power-sharing and the Council of Ireland.

Saturday 23 March 1974 (or 10 May 1974 ?)
The Ulster Workers' Council (UWC), a new grouping, issues a statement calling for new elections to the Northern Ireland Asembly.

Saturday 4 May 1974
A conference of pro-Assembly Unionists was held in Poststewart, County Derry, to discuss the Sunningdale proposals.

Sunday 5 May 1974
The pro-Assembly Unionists meeting in Portstewart, County Derry, announce the reformation of their group which will use the name the Unionist Party.

Wednesday 8 May 1974
The Ulster Defence Association (UDA) issued a statement condemning the security situation in Northern Ireland and gave its support to the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC) and the policy of opposing the Sunningdale Agreement.


Chronology of events during the UWC strike

Tuesday 14 May 1974
There was a debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly on a motion condemning power-sharing and the Council of Ireland. The motion was defeated by 44 votes to 28. At 6.00pm, following the conclusion of the Assembly debate, Harry Murray announced to a group of journalists that a general strike was to start the following day. The organisation named as be responsible for calling the strike was the Ulster Workers' Council (UWC). The action was to become known as the Ulster Workers' Council strike.

Wednesday 15 May 1974
Day 1 of the UWC strike
The initial response to the strike was poor with many workers going to work. However, following meetings held at a number of workplaces, people began to leave work during lunch-time and early afternoon. By the end of the day the port of Larne, County Antrim, was effectively sealed off. A number of roads had been blocked by hijacked vehicles. Some buses were hijacked in Belfast. Electricity supplies were also disrupted with rotating four-hourly power cuts occurring across the region. The power cuts forced some factories to close and send workers home. The Ulster Workers' Council (UWC) issued a statement
[IMAGE] saying that it would ensure that essential services would continue.
Members of the UWC together with Loyalist leaders met for talks with Stanley Orme, the then Minister of Sate at the Northern Ireland Office (NIO).

Thursday 16 May 1974
Day 2 of the UWC strike
The effect of the strike deepened with the engineering sector of the economy being the hardest hit. The use of intimidation (or 'persuasion' as the Loyalist paramilitaries preferred to call it) [VIDEO] had a significant impact on the number of people who managed to get to work. The strike began to have a number of effects on the farming sector with uncollected, or unprocessed, milk having to be dumped and fresh food not reaching shops. The Ulster Workers' Council (UWC) issued a list of 'essential services' [IMAGE] which were to be allowed to operate as normal and also issued a telephone number for anyone engaged in such work. The UWC also ordered public houses to close. There was an outbreak of sectarian rioting.
One thing that became clear was that the timing of the removal of barricades by the police was tactically wrong. In many instances barricades were not removed until people had made an initial attempt to get to work. Having been turned back first thing in the morning few people were attempting to travel mid-morning or mid-afternoon when a number of roads would have been reopened. There were complaints about a lack of action, particularly to clear obstructions on roads, on the part of the British Army. The strike was the main subject of Northern Ireland 'question time' in the House of Commons at Westminster. Paddy Devlin, a then member of the Executive, threatens to resign on the issue of interment.
Merlyn Rees, the then Secretary of State, met with Loyalist leaders in Stormont. Mr Rees said that he would not negotiate with the UWC.

Friday 17 May 1974
Day 3 of the UWC strike
Reductions in the supply of electricity continued to have serious consequences for industry, commerce, and the domestic sector. In addition to problems in maintaining petrol distribution, a lack of electricity also meant that pumps did not operate for substantial periods of each day. 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. Special arrangements were made by the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that payments of welfare benefits would be delivered to claimants. The car in which Glen Barr, one of the leaders of the strike, was traveling suffered a mechanical fault which almost led to a serious accident as he traveled to Belfast from Derry.
William Craig, the then leader of Ulster Vanguard, criticised Merlyn Rees, the then Secretary of Sate for Northern Ireland, for not negotiating with the Ulster Workers' Council (UWC).
News of car bombs in Dublin and Monaghan, Republic of Ireland, in which 33 people were killed raised the tension in Northern Ireland. The bombs were later attributed to Loyalist paramilitaries. The death toll in the bombs remains the highest to occur during any single day of 'the Troubles'.

Saturday 18 May 1974
Day 4 of the UWC strike
The Ulster Workers' Council (UWC) issued a statement calling for an all-out stoppage to begin at midnight on Sunday 19 May 1974. The UWC criticised Merlyn Rees, the then Secretary of Sate for Northern Ireland, for not meeting with leaders of the strike. Members of the Northern Ireland Executive were told that the Army could not run the power stations on their own. There were attempts at negotiation by the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP).
At this stage some people believed that there were grounds for thinking that the strike might not succeed. Many middle-class Protestants were against the strike, as were managers, technicians in power stations, doctors, lawyers, teachers and small shopkeepers.

Sunday 19 May 1974
Day 5 of the UWC strike
Merlyn Rees, the then Secretary of Sate for Northern Ireland, announced a State of Emergency (Section 40, Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973). Merlyn Rees flew to Chequers, the country home of the Prime Minister for talks. The United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC) met and agreed to support the Ulster Workers' Council (UWC). The UWC withdrew its call for a total stoppage as of midnight. Some shops reported panic buying.
A memorandum was submitted by the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) to the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) [include TEXT of memorandum].

Monday 20 May 1974
Day 6 of the UWC strike
Many roads in Northern Ireland were closed because of barricades. Electricity generation dropped to about one-third of normal levels. People were asked only to use telephones in an emergency. Five hundred additional troops arrived in Northern Ireland.
An advertisement [IMAGE] in the News Letter newspaper, which had been placed by Unionist politicians, called for support of the strike.

Tuesday 21 May 1974
Day 7 of the UWC strike
Len Murray, the then General Secretary of the Trades Union Council (TUC), led a 'back-to-work' march [IMAGE] which turned out to be a fiasco. The march was supported by leading local Trade Union officials and attempted to lead workers back to the Belfast shipyard and factories in east Belfast. Only about 200 people joined the march. The march was flanked by members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and British troops but a hostile crowd still managed to assault some of those marching.
An updated list [IMAGE PDF] [IMAGE TIF] of those services which were to be allowed through roadblocks and the opening times permitted for shops was issued by the 'Ulster Army Council'.
At Westminster Harold Wilson, the then British Prime Minister, attacked the strike.

Wednesday 22 May 1974
Day 8 of the UWC strike
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 (UWC) and other Loyalist leaders. The British government repeated their stance on not negotiating with the UWC.
John Hume, the then Minister of Commerce, worked on a 'fuel oil plan'.

Thursday 23 May 1974
Day 9 of the UWC strike
Security forces removed barricades only to find that they had been replaced soon after. Workers in Derry were prevented from going to the Maydown Industrial Estate. Although many schools managed to operate during the strike it was reported that some GCE examinations were affected. Gerry Fitt, the then Deputy Chief Executive, called on the British Government to send troops to the power stations and the oil refineries.
Northern Ireland question time at Westminster again dealt with the strike.

Friday 24 May 1974
Day 10 of the UWC strike
Talks were held at Chequers, the country home of the British Prime Minister, involving: Harold Wilson, the then British Prime Minister; Brian Faulkner, the then Chief Executive; Gerry Fitt, the then Deputy Chief Executive; and Oliver Napier, the then Legal Minister and Head of the Office of Law Reform. A statement was issued after the talks stated that there would be no negotiations with those who operated outside constitutional politics. The British Government cabinet met later in the day.

Saturday 25 May 1974
Day 11 of the UWC strike
Harold Wilson, the then British Prime Minister, made a broadcast [TEXT] on British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) television and radio at 10.15pm. The speech proved to be totally counter-productive. At one point in the speech Wilson referred to 'spongers' - meaning the Ulster Workers' Council (UWC) and its supporters. However most Protestants took the reference as a slight on them. Indeed some Protestants took to wearing small sponges in their lapels the following day as a gesture of support for the strike.

Sunday 26 May 1974
Day 12 of the UWC strike
The leaders of the Ulster Workers' Council (UWC) strike claimed that support was continuing to grow. The UWC also claimed that its system of permits [IMAGE] was working well in maintaining 'essential services', particularly the supply of petrol. The British Army arrested more than 30 men in raids on Protestant areas of Belfast.
Gerry Fitt, the then Deputy Chief Executive, attended a meeting at the Northern Ireland Office (NIO). The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) met at 1 pm. A meeting of Brian Faulkner's Unionist ministers also took place.

Monday 27 May 1974
Day 13 of the UWC strike
Gas supplies to Belfast and other outlying districts were affected by a drop in pressure and a warning was issued that consumers should switch off their supply at the mains. [IMAGE of advertisement by Belfast City Council Gas Department.] The British Army took charge of 21 petrol stations throughout Northern Ireland. These petrol stations were to supply petrol to essential users who could obtain a permit from the Ministry of Commerce. [Include IMAGE of Northern Ireland Executive advertisement of emergency arrangements for the distribution of oil products.]
The Ulster Workers' Council (UWC) retaliated following the take over of the petrol stations. The UWC announced that the British Army would have to undertake the supply of all essential services including basics such as bread and milk. There was a call issued for workers to stop their assistance in the provision of essential services. The UWC also stated that the Ballylumford power station, County Antrim, would close at midnight.

Tuesday 28 May 1974
Day 14 of the UWC strike
The crisis came to a head. Brian Faulkner resigned as Chief Executive following a refusal by Merlyn Rees, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to meet with representatives from the Ulster Workers' Council (UWC). Faulkner's Unionist colleagues also resigned. This effectively marked the end of the Northern Ireland Executive.
A large demonstration of farmers in tractors blocked the entrance to the Stormont parliament buildings and also much of the Upper Newtownards Road [PHOTOGRAPH]. News of the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive spread to the protestors. Celebrations took place in Protestant areas across the region.


Chronology of some relevant events immediately after the UWC strike

Wednesday 29 May 1974
A return to work began across Northern Ireland. The leaders of the Ulster Workers' Council (UWC) officially called off the strike. [Include PHOTOGRAPH of victory rally held at Stormont.]

Thursday 30 May 1974
The Northern Ireland Assembly was prorogued (it was officially dissolved on 29 March 1974).


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