Memories of UWC Strike of May 1974…

In May 1974, I was a 13-year-old schoolboy who would return home from school each day for the usual glass of milk and sandwich with my mother at the kitchen table. On 14th May I did not realise the significance when my mother slapped down a copy of the Newsletter on the table in front of me and asked ‘Well what do you think of that?’ The page in question outlined the intention of the Ulster Workers Council (UWC) to have a strike that would bring down the Powersharing executive.

My understanding of the horror of the NI Troubles was limited to what I observed on TV, but with the occasional exciting bomb scare. On one memorable occasion I was woken by my father at 1am and taken to the store in which he worked, to help him check the shelves for incendiaries while the shop next door was consumed by the roaring flames. (Health and Safety rules were lax back then.)

I didn’t fully understand the issues involved but the accepted view from older sisters and my parents was that Sunningdale was good and that a strike causing disruption or further trouble was bad. In particular my mother didn’t like the idea of disruption to school around exam time and I was astute enough to pretend I was in complete agreement with her.

During the following days my parents insisted we went to school as normal, but the school closed for safety reasons; later I witnessed my father’s fury as he was sent home because the store in which he worked was closed down by ‘teenage thugs wearing masks’ who threatened his manager. I enjoyed the excitement of the powercuts and being able to see our streets in complete darkness but my parents sensibly kept me inside at night. I wasn’t really old enough to appreciate how ugly or dangerous this was going to get.

My parents, despite being strongly unionist always viewed the UWC strike as a disaster but seemed to forgive the DUP for their role in it. I was not quite so forgiving and probably inherited my antipathy to Paisley and the DUP from those days, but as an adult looking back it is impossible to lay the blame for that disaster solely at Loyalists.

Opposition to Powersharing in 1974

A few years later when at Queen’s in Belfast I bought myself a copy of War and an Irish Town (2nd edition 1980) by Eamonn McCann and I was surprised to read on P141-2 that the ‘con trick’ of Sunningdale might have worked ‘had not the IRA blithely blasted on. Hard hit as they had been in the previous twelve months, they (the IRA) knew that if they heeded advice to call a halt, almost all support in the ghettoes would have flowed rapidly to the SDLP. The Provos had no base from which to counteract such a swing. They strained their resources and manpower to the limit in an all-out offensive in Britain and the North.’

Because of this anniversary I spent a couple of hours looking at the CAIN record of conflict events ( ) and a number of things stand out about the violence that took place before the overthrow of Sunningdale.

In the weeks following the Sunningdale agreement (9th Dec 1973) the IRA continued planting bombs and shooting policemen. Two IRA bombers killed themselves and a civilian with an amateur bomb just two weeks after the agreement and rather than giving Powersharing a chance the IRA kept killing in the new year – 11 people were murdered by the IRA in a February bombing, while in March they manage to kill 7 people.

Even a belated move by Merlyn Rees to legalise Sinn Fein and end internment announced on 4th April did not give the IRA a reason to pause in their opposition to Powersharing – they murdered a woman UDR member and 2 policemen in May, as well as killing two of their own volunteers in a premature bomb explosion.

Why does the IRA opposition to Powersharing Matter?

During these days, loyalists were killing Catholics and as the UWC took hold, the violence from loyalist paramilitaries grew significantly across N. Ireland and with 33 murdered in the Dublin and Monaghan bombs. In the end the violence won and Powersharing was delayed until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and Nationalists rightly point to the missed opportunity that was taken from us by the UWC strike.

Most unionists are embarrassed by the UWC strike and want to forget it, (note the level of coverage in the Irish News vs the low level in the Newsletter) but we unionists should be honest that we were wrong in opposing Powersharing in 1974. Similarly, republicans should stop trying to obscure the fact that the IRA was opposed to Powersharing in 1974 and that the IRA was on the same side as Ian Paisley and the UWC during those days.

In recent weeks Sinn Féin have been honest about some of the mistakes they have made in the past and deserve credit for this. Our community will have a more success if we continue with honesty, admitting the understandable mistakes of our past.

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