Ulster Workers’ Council strike: the strike which brought down Sunningdale? #UWC40

I was 11 months old when the Ulster Workers’ Council strike occurred. And given the absence of Irish history on the school history syllabus – at least until the point I gave it up for Geography and spent two years studying Brazil – it’s a part of local affairs that largely passed me by.

3x3 UWC40 conferenceThere are two conferences on the subject this week. The first at Queens on Monday. 40 Years On: The Strike Which Brought Down Sunningdale brought together recollections from a strike organiser, civil servants, nationalists as well as artists and members of the public (referred to as ‘civilians’ in the programme!).

In the calm before the vote counting and analysis of results, you can listen back to all of Monday’s sessions.

Glenn Barr spoke for an hour setting out a timeline of the build up to the strike, the organisational challenges, political involvement (including the story about Ian Paisley sitting in his chair) and repercussions. Church leadership was described as “abysmal” in the lead up to the industrial stoppage. He argued that the strike itself had failed to bring down Sunningdale. Andy Tyrie wasn’t well enough to attend but Glenn’s overview set a foundation for much of the rest of the day. The mix of trade union officials, paramilitaries and politicians is hard to comprehend. Equally hard to comprehend Glenn Barr’s motivations at the time of the strike and his view on the kind of political change required today. He suggested that 40 years later politics was still about the donkey carrying the largest Union Jack and the goat with the biggest tricolour.

audienceSir Kenneth Bloomfield and Dr Maurice Hayes brought an inside view of the civil service and government reaction to the strike. A selection of nationalist/republican views were shared by Austin Currie, Tommy McKearney and Harry Donaghy. Austin recalled describing Ian Paisley (in 1967) as “a bigoted hangover from the 17th century”. He also argued that if the army had acted decisively during the first days of the strike it could have been snuffed out. [Ed – parallels with flag protests?] Towards the end of the session Austin and Tommy became quite heated over the role of the SDLP in the Sunningdale government.

Playwright Stewart Parker wrote Pentecost about the strike. [Ed – watch out for Pentecost at the Lyric Theatre later this year.] Actors Adrian Dunbar and Barbara Adair read snippets from the script and there was a general debunking of the myth that Protestants are under-represented in the theatre (both in terms of writing plays and watching them). While people were seeing theatre and being moved by the stories they saw, Adrian asked why there’s wasn’t more of a groundswell change of attitude in society?

The final session brought together what the conference programme described as ‘civilians’! Henry Sinnerton was a teacher during the strike and discussed the impact on him, the pupils and the community around the school. (Henry wrote the excellent biography of David Ervine.) Jackie Redpath, a community activist around the Shankill, talked about the social situation around the strike, with mills closing and housing redevelopment. He noted that whereas in 1974 parents had kept their children away from schools at times of heightened tension – except for the East Belfast mothers who demanded that if it was good enough for one school to be open, then Braniel should be open too! – today, parents would be lobbying to ensure their children had safe passage to school and uninterrupted education. And Derry-based Nell McCafferty was animated as she recalled family reactions to Wilson’s ‘spongers’ speech and her transition away from an initial support for the strike.

Search twitter for #uwc40 and still you’ll be able to look back at a bit more detail on reaction to the speakers and debate.

Eight hours of conference and the Ulster Workers’ Strike had switched from a vague concept to a complex sequence of dominoes that I sense will take a long time – if ever – to properly understand.

UU’s conference in the Public Records Office on Friday (tomorrow) will have less of a focus on hearing testimony from 40 years ago and will concentrate on academic reflections on the context and legacies of the strike and Sunningdale. David McCann will be there and is likely to blog about what he hears.

Glenn Barr

h/t to Brian O’Neill for his photos

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  • In the 20th century the general strike of workers was supposed to be the secret wonder weapon that would usher in a world of workers’ power. The 1974 Ulster strike was one of the few, possibly the only time, when a general strike achieved even its limited objectives. This was due largely to unique circumstances of community-wide support for its goals. Sinn Fein, which at the time shared the same goal of bringing down the power-sharing government and which claims to be a socialist party, should be commemorating this anniversary. We’ll have to see if that is the case.

  • Newton Emerson

    I can only remember the power cuts. No Casey Jones or Champion the Wonder Horse on Saturday morning, cold corned beef sandwiches for lunch and my dad collecting storm lanterns like they were a treasure beyond price.
    He collected enough to open his shop, convinced the lighting was good enough to deter shop-lifters. People came from miles around to steal the lamps…

  • carl marks

    It’s not a surprise that the UWC lockout is sanitised by some but there are a few points which must be challenged,
    Comparing what was in effect a lockout (myself and many, many others were prevented from going to work and not striking) enforced by masked terrorists to a general strike is ridiculous.
    No Trade Union supported the strike; all spoke out against it,
    People were denied access to hospital; work, shops etc., and barricades manned by the UDA and UVF blocked roads. Loyalist death squads were active and Catholics were put out of their homes.
    And community wide support for its goal’s, of course that is only true if you regard the majority of nationalist’s not being part of the community.
    Now I can’t speak for SF but I would doubt that they would agree with your claim that they supported the aims of the UWC action which was maintaining unionist superiority.
    No it was not anything as honourable as a general strike is was a sordid sectarian disaster, which set out to overthrow a government and used bully boys to do it, I think that is called a revolt!

  • Carl,

    I agree that it was less a strike than a revolt. There was another thread last week where I described what happened to the men working with me. I don’t know what their religion(s) were but I suspect that, since it was a north Down town, most if not all came from one section of the population.

  • Son of Strongbow

    How did icthyophiles fair generally? Did fishmongers stay open?

  • between the bridges

    ”People came from miles around to steal the lamps…” cracker!
    I was only a cub so all I can remember was a barricade at one estate and farmers coming round giving out the milk free…

  • carl marks

    I remember having to walk to the Belfast tech to do my City and Guilds and because the electric was off, we sat the exam on the top floor under skylights. The walk there and back was nervy; it was a very worrying time with loyalist mobs moving with impunity and the army and police doing nothing.
    On the bright side it was the last time this tactic worked for unionists, a second attempted lockout was a farce and other bring the mob out when thing don’t suit you incidents like Drumcree, Holy Cross, Flegs and Twaddell have all failed.

  • “And community wide support for its goal’s, of course that is only true if you regard the majority of nationalist’s not being part of the community.”


    The nationalists are part of the nationalist community and the unionists are part of the unionist community–I’m sure that those ejected from different sections of Belfast and Derry in 1969-71 thought that there was a single community after they had been ejected.

    “Now I can’t speak for SF but I would doubt that they would agree with your claim that they supported the aims of the UWC action which was maintaining unionist superiority.”

    I didn’t claim that they had the same motives but the same immediate purpose–bringing down the power-sharing government. I also doubt if from 1941 to 1945 Britain and the Soviet Union had the same motives for fighting Hitler, but they had the same strategic goal of overthrowing his regime.

  • Excuse me that should read “I doubt that those ejected… “

  • Roy Walsh

    The BBC seemed to be celebrating this event the other day.
    My memory of the ‘strike’ was the ambulance my father was in being halted, my father being taken out, not permitted to proceed to hospital and placed by paramedics into our car, in which we were following, and my Mother stressing about her ill husband, angry that because of his religion he was not afforded healthcare.
    The ‘success’ of the strike was the closure of the shipyard which Thatcher refused to bail out because of the previous actions of the unionists, east Belfast and the Shankill can thank the UWC for their unemployment rate, if you’ve no job you cannot strike.

  • carl marks

    So when you said, wide community support you only meant the unionist community, that’s strange because it read like you were making the claim that the people who were intimidated and had their democratic mandate ignored somehow supported the bully boys!
    And I think I can say that only someone with either a lack of understanding of the politics of the period or a desire to whitewash the actions of unionists during the lockout would try to claim that nationalists supported the whole sordid sectarian business, or that it suited any nationalist agenda.
    What it did do was prove to the world that Unionist parties have no qualms using the loyalist terror groups for political muscle when thing don’t go there way( again I mention Drumcree, the second attempted lockout , Holy Cross and most lately the Flegs) and makes a lie of the claim they make to be democrats.

  • Robbie

    ‘No Trade Union supported the strike; all spoke out against it’.

    Factually incorrect from someone who is extremely voluble on the subject, with no intention in that most narrow of ways of either listening to the sessions of this conference (or indeed any other), or taking anything new on board.

    Barr himself at this particular conference reminded someone in the audience who asked where the trade union element was that he was a shop steward (as incidentally was Andy Tyrie, who apparently couldn’t make it). Part of the way Northern Ireland is doomed to repeat its history is the way some such as yourself show no signs of actually understanding it.

    Interesting they did a session on Parker’s ‘Pentecost’ play. Saw it in 2008 in the unforgettable shell of the Northern Bank building. A line from the same author’s ‘Northern Star’ – ‘It isn’t true to say they forget nothing. It’s far worse than that – they misremember everything’.

    Sums you up as it does so many in NI.

  • carl marks

    I was involved in the trade union movement at the time of the lockout and the trade union movement came out solidly against it.
    Maybe you missed the back to work march organised by the TUC, if you were on the ground you would have witnessed many act of integrity and bravery by union members, and shop stewards (particularly in the shipyard, were they defended the right to work and in many occasions stood with their catholic workmates against intimidation ) but please I might be wrong so perhaps you could show me the statements and actions from the unions supporting the corner boys and there unionist masters

  • “And I think I can say that only someone with either a lack of understanding of the politics of the period or a desire to whitewash the actions of unionists during the lockout would try to claim that nationalists supported the whole sordid sectarian business, or that it suited any nationalist agenda.”


    Obviously it didn’t serve the agenda of the democratic portion of nationalism, the SDLP, which fought to keep the Executive going and were very disappointed by the British army’s lack of support. But it did serve the agenda of the non-democratic portion of nationalism, which condemned the power-sharing government and continued its campaign of bombing and shooting.

  • carl marks

    the SDLP represented the majority of nationalists and if memory serves I don’t recall any Shinner (either then or any time since) indicating that the lockout was good for them, apart from unionism showing its violent undemocratic side (again) and giving the Provo’s a perceived justification for their own campaign of undemocratic violence, it didn’t do them any good and I doubt that many toasts to the lockout were raised inside the army council.
    The IRA failed in its self-declared role as defenders of the nationalist people and that did not go unnoticed in the nationalist areas.
    The SDLP was left with egg on its face (unfairly I think) and the Shinner tacticians took advantage of the situation but to confuse that for SF approving of the lockout is a mistake.