A BBC reporter’s recollections of the UWC strike and reflections on lessons learned

I  thought I’d  rescue a  few memories of my own as a young BBC reporter  from  “comments”, on the fascinating reflections by loyalist  veterans about the UWC Strike hosted by Alan Meban on Slugger video.

A couple of BBC anecdotes from the time. The controller Dick Francis and Head of Programmes Ronnie Mason secretly drove up an emergency generator from Dublin in case of a blackout and parked it in the enclosed yard. They felt like the 7th Cavalry riding to the rescue.

One evening as the strike progressed we had the UWC figurehead Bill Craig in for interview.  For those who.don’t recognise the name,  Bill had been the minister of Home Affairs who had banned the civil rights march on 5th October 1968  which the police baton charged, triggering the start of the Troubles. Sacked for his pains he went on to head Vanguard the political movement that first sought to mobilise opinion for  tougher action against the IRA, or if that didn’t happen,  Bill notoriously threatened,  they’d take action themselves.

In 1973, Bill found himself  the nominal head of the anti-  Sunningdale movement that included the UDA that in turn  provided the muscle,  numbers and leadership for the strike committee. With the growth of loyalist paramilitaries it had evolved and expanded  from the Loyalist Association of Workers, LAW (!)  in the shipyard under Billy Hull.

Anyway I digress.  After the interview  we all  repaired to hospitality for a drink. “ How’s it all going for you?, asked Bill.

Our programme secretary who like just about the whole staff was  turning  up for work every day. She had braved the UDA barricades at the Clara Park Estate that morning.

She burst into tears.

“ Masked men tried to take my name this morning,” she sobbed.

Ronnie had been at Queen’s with Bill. He rose to his feet and roared.

“ Bill, call your fucking dogs off my staff”.

Christ I thought, we’re for it now..

But Bill took it calmly.

“ I’m awful sorry Ronnie I’ll see what I can do”.

Bill for all his threatening talk in Vanguard was very anxious about the course of events and worried that they’d all be arrested.

Within a year he had proposed a voluntary coalition and lost his seat to Peter Robinson. Paisley had kept offside and fled to Canada.

In  a later post mortem on the Strike we had ex ministers Roy Bradford the Ulster Unionist and the SDLP bruiser Paddy Devlin in for interview together. They were very different characters by background and politics but closer than you might think, both being very well read and fine writers.

However Roy had been accused of playing for both sides and leaking inside information from the Executive to the strikers.

“ No I did nothing of the sort”,

“ You fucking did” shouted Paddy waving a huge belligerent fist in Roy’s face.

Roy did one of those nervous little dances people do when they pretend to square up.

“ C’mon then”.

Walker had to intervene to halt the match.

Trying to push me aside, they moved towards each other and we all fell over the table.

Time for another drink. But without making up. Very funny but very sad.

I see  a commenter says Bradford hosted secret meetings with the UDA in his house.  That wouldn’t surprise me, not because  he was  on their side but he might have wanted to mediate and gain the credit for it.

30 years later I recorded at archive interview with the senior civil servant Ken Bloomfield. He sobbed at the memory of an opportunity lost for another quarter century. Glennie Barr became a community leader working happily across the divide in Derry.

The  political tragedy we heard reflected in the discussion is that the unionist establishment fatally split and the faction of unionism that formed the Executive were therefore unable to convince the working class that power sharing was the political way ahead. It was a huge ask with so little preparation after the collapse of Stormont in March 1972. After 50 years of unionist monopoly and little contact with Dublin the odds – and the timing with a parallel crisis in Britain, – were stacked against it. The fatal element, according to conventional wisdom, was that the Council of Ireland,  was seen inevitably as a step to a united Ireland and therefore a victory for the rampant IRA. It meant that the SDLP of John Hume gave up on unionists for 20 years. Gerry Fitt was different, Belfast working class, knowing unionists better from battles in the City Hall, hostile to the IRA for working class betrayal, like Devlin less keen on the Council of Ireland in that form. And  to be honest, somewhat jealous of Hume’s growing  prominence and others he called ” the school masters”.   He gave up on the SDLP.

So  poignant to hear these memories of events, calmly recalled, in which I was  involved as a journalist.

The speakers remind us it was a working class revolt on both sides and it was working or jobless people who suffered most.

The discussion  was valuable for lessons learned, including the admission  that the civil rights demands of 1969 which were feared as a threat to their own position were perfectly  reasonable indeed undeniable. The course  followed by Paisley  was not one  they followed.  Paisley was never their leader. Indeed a basic  problem for unionism was that  so many working class loyalists felt they had noone to vote for. Still an issue today?

Interestingly one reason why the new Wilson government refused to take action against the strikers was that they recognised it as a working class movement. ( Another was the army refusing to fight a war on two fronts). The flaw in the class analysis that despite the writ running of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in the North, the sectarian UDA character of the strike – indeed better described as a stoppage or indeed a revolt- meant that  class solidarity  was fatally one sided.  Class based government remains an illusion. But the same idealism can make cross community government work.

In the early 1970s  any hopes of reforming  politics were soon  dashed by sectarian violence. And violence had to be dealt with before politics could progress.

The “down side” of loyalist solidarity  was only briefly  mentioned. This was the UDA /UFF/UVF murderous  campaign which  claimed more  lives in 1972 than the IRA. The aim was I believe not “mindless” although  indeed partly a  reaction  to the IRA terrorism against the public, but  explained to themselves as an  escalation designed to provoke enough  IRA  retaliation to compel  the security forces  to take strong enough action to crush them. That was never going to happen.


Discover more from Slugger O'Toole

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

We are reader supported. Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger. While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.