Some people have been invoking “the Blitz spirit” to cope with the “war” against coronavirus. Is there a Troubles spirit that might help too? Perhaps. In the early 70s the threat of the no warning bomb was the terrifying norm. People skirted around incidents and shopkeepers called in council workers and the glaziers, (a highly profitable trade), to clear up the mess. It helped that a chief constable’s certificate rather than insurance became the norm for claiming compensation. Once town centres were sealed off by “control zones” and frisking on entering premises of any size became universal, tensions eased a little. But this was the surface reality. Episodes of real horror were part of an endless vista of a disordered existence in which normality of a kind could still be lived. Behind the routine were cramped spirits, constricted ambitions and deep, underlying anxiety and anger.
In 1973 -4, routines were seriously interrupted for more than week by two events that occurred within six months of each other, the UK wide Three Day Week of late 1973 early 74 and the Ulster Workers’ Council strike, four months later, a local encore of the first staged exclusively for us in Northern Ireland.
In the three day week the clue is in the name; electricity was rationed for factory production after the oil price soared in response the latest Arab Israel War. Seizing their chance, British coal miners struck for massively more pay for fuelling the power stations, most of which were adaptable for both oil and coal. Ted Heath’s government battened down the hatches. In February 1974 in the Who Governs Britain election the voters replied with “Not You Mate” and Harold Wilson formed a minority government.
For us the two stoppages were intimately connected. In the middle of the power cuts, the British and Irish government and the local parties (but not Sinn Fein, still at war with no end in sight) concluded the Sunningdale Agreement that set up the first power sharing government. But not a single pro power sharing unionist was returned in the Westminster election only two months after the Executive was formed. The stage was set for its overthrow in May.
The effect on routine was striking. BBC NI and UTV staked out the negotiations in Sunningdale civil service college in Berkshire, ready to go live. Broadcasting equipment was much more cumbersome than today and with power supplies erratic, it was a very hairy operation. .Our accommodation was basically a toilet block away from the main house. We’d hired the last few cars out of Heathrow 20 miles away. But petrol stations were usually empty or closed, many street lights were switched off and we didn’t dare to make for the only local hotel available miles away in Windsor, a magnificent boutique establishment designed by Sir Christopher Wren , in case we couldn’t make it back to Sunningdale. Nights stretched into days. Some colleagues drowned their sorrows a little too well and had to be bailed out with impromptu copy services when the conferences suddenly broke up on Sunday evening.
The following May human agency was much more close up and personal in the UWC strike. The power workers at Ballylumford walked out willingly or otherwise. Masked men set up road blocks. The UWC council graciously issued permits to allow essential services like ambulances through. The security forces took little action, refusing to fight a war on two fronts against the IRA and UDA/UVF.
The BBC set up a prototype continuous news service in the infant Radio Ulster and was inevitably criticised for making things worse. Senior managers the controller Dick Francis and the head of programmes Ronnie Mason hugely enjoyed themselves driving emergency generators up from Dublin. It was less fun for staff who had their names taken by masked men as they left home to loyally turn up for work.
One evening the UWC’s figurehead Bill Craig the former Unionist Home Affairs Minister came in for interview. Bill had founded Vanguard a quasi fascist group that contained former and actual unionists like himself. Inflammatory speeches and dark threats were Bill’s shtick rather than organisation. Events were certainly beyond his control.
Some of us joined him for a drink in the small hospitality room where the problems of Northern Ireland were frequently solved in drink but the solutions were forgotten in sobriety.
Our programme secretary began quietly sobbing. What was wrong? Masked UDA man had warned her off coming into work that morning but she had defied them. At this Ronnie Mason stood up and leant over the capo de capi. He had been to Queen’s with Bill and was not impressed with his shifty eminence.
“Bill”, Ronnie roared, “Call your f *** ing dogs off my staff.”
Oh Christ I thought, we’re for it now.
“I’m awful sorry, Ronnie”, said Bill, a man who claimed he was off the drink when he was on the sherry. “I’ll try to do something about it.”
The collapse of Sunningdale and the UDA rebellion that followed was of those episodes that gave us more than a hint of what a breakdown of society might be like – something fervently to avoid, however long the Covid 19 emergency lasts.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London