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Ulster Workers' Council Strike - Summary of Main Events

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Text: Martin Melaugh ... Research: Fionnuala McKenna
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    The modern rebellion of 1974 is one of the most significant - and intriguing - events of the last 25 years of conflict. Many writers have either failed to detect the significance of those fourteen days, or have dealt with them in a cursory fashion. It was an episode of complex political, social and military events, ....
    The rebellion, by a large section of the loyalist and Unionist community, is a landmark in the history of the period. Its relevance to present-day events cannot be dismissed, and must be one of the factors which will be central to any analysis of the political way forward. British government will ignore it at their peril.

    Martin Dillon, in the foreword to Fourteen May Days (Anderson, 1994).

    This book is about ... the fifteen unprecedented, historic days in which a million British citizens, the Protestants of Northern Ireland, staged what amounted to a rebellion against the Crown and won ...
    During those fifteen days, for the first time in over fifty years ..., a section of the realm became totally ungovernable. A self-elected provisional government of Protestant power workers, well-armed private armies and extreme politicians organized a strike which almost broke up the fabric of civilized life in Ulster. They deprived most of the population for much of the time of food, water, electricity, gas, transport, money and any form of livelihood.

    Robert Fisk, in the preface to his book The Point of No Return: The Strike Which Broke the British in Ulster (Fisk, 1975).

The Ulster Workers' Council (UWC) strike took place between Wednesday 15 May 1974 to Tuesday 28 May 1974. The strike was called in protest at the political and security situation in Northern Ireland and more particular at the proposals in the Sunningdale Agreement which would have given the government of the Republic of Ireland a direct say in the running of the region. The strike lasted two weeks and succeeded in bringing down the power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive. Responsibility for the government of Northern Ireland then reverted to the British Parliament at Westminster under the arrangements for 'Direct Rule'.

There had been a couple of occasions before, and several after, the 1974 UWC strike, when sections of the Loyalist community had tried to use the industrial might of Protestant workers in a national stoppage or strike to achieve a political end. Most of these stoppages were failures or achieved only limited success. The 1974 UWC strike, however, was successful for a number of reasons. The most important was the fact that the leadership of the strike was able to harness the deep sense of alienation that had grown in the Protestant community during the previous five years. This sense of alienation meant that a large section of the Protestant community was prepared to give active or, at least, tacit support to the strike. Another key factor was the support for the strike in key industries such as power generation, gas and petrol distribution. Other reasons for the success of the strike can be found in the shambolic nature of the response of the British Government and the Northern Ireland Office.

There is no doubt that the events of May 1974 have had important repercussions on the various attempts that have been made since to find a political settlement to the conflict in Northern Ireland. The attempts in the current Peace Process to find a vehicle for nationalist aspirations in the form of 'cross-border bodies' have obvious echoes in the 'Council of Ireland' proposals in the Sunningdale Agreement.

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

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