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International Socialism, Mid-June 1974


Mike Miller

On the Ulster Workers’ Council

Belfast on Strike


From International Socialism, No.70, Mid-June 1974, pp.17-21.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE GENERAL STRIKE called by the Ulster Workers’ Council last month took nearly everyone by surprise – including the great majority of the Ulster workers. The strike had been threatened in April by the previously unheard-of UWC but apart from a mild condemnation from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions’ Northern Committee – dealing solely with the economic consequences of such a strike – there was little response.

The last industrial stoppages in the North of Ireland organised by the overtly sectarian, pro-imperialist Loyalist Association of Workers last year, were abysmal failures. They had little or no support and resulted in serious outbreaks of violence between Loyalists and the British Army. Five men were shot dead and the revulsion in Loyalist ghettoes ensured the speedy collapse of the LAW.

The prevailing attitude to the UWC threat was summed up in the Irish Times:

‘While their capacity for disruption is not doubted, its application at this time would not enjoy widespread support among Protestants and although temporarily effective such action would be harmful to the organisation and its cause. An enforced stoppage would provide justification for contingency plans, such as the use of soldiers, for example, to take over unoccupied key posts in power stations, the docks and other vital spots.’

Yet less than five weeks later the strike had inflicted a resounding defeat on the policy of both main British political parties for Northern Ireland. The Sunningdale Agreement had been shelved, the Northern Ireland Executive had collapsed and the Assembly was prorogued. Loyalists were dancing round their bonfires on the streets of East Belfast and the Shankill Road. The strike had lasted two weeks. The Irish Times predictions about the use of troops had proved wrong. A mere token occupation of 21 petrol stations was the only attempt made to break the strike by the use of troops. That action only served to increase the strike’s support and two days later the strike ended – in victory.

Before the strike it appeared that the Loyalist cause – for the overthrow of Sunningdale and the ‘power-sharing’ Executive – had been routed.

Faulkner still faced tremendous difficulties in holding together the pro-assembly Unionists. The upsurge of Loyalist opposition at the February general election had provided his opponents with 11 of Northern Ireland’s 12 seats at Westminster, and more than 51 per cent of the total vote, but the Loyalist politicians had been incapable, either in Westminster or the Assembly, of using their electoral strength to influence events significantly. They were ignored at Westminster and outnumbered in the Assembly. Their attempts to prevent the Assembly from functioning had always been called off short of achieving their goal. Apart from the continuation of murderous attacks on Catholic workers by Loyalist paramilitary groups – a politically directionless, if nonetheless horrifying campaign-there was little sign of independent Loyalist working-class action outside the established political process.

The various Loyalist opposition parties banded together in the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC) led by Paisley, Craig and West, were beginning, gradually, to move on to new territory, away from the futile attempts to alter things through the parliamentary structures. At a conference in April they established a study group to examine ways of making their campaign more effective. When the group reported back on 13 May it proposed modest ‘economic sanctions’ and other forms of peaceful opposition.

Two of the study group members, Harry Murray and Billy Kelly, informed the professional politicians that their own organisation, the Ulster Workers Council, was going ahead with its plan for a general strike as from 6pm on Tuesday 14 May – the next day – if the Assembly voted in favour of continuing with Sunningdale.

But all the UUUC leadership opposed the idea vehemently. They did not want independent action outside their own control. The UWC, howeyer, was determined. For them, it was now or never. They organised for the strike despite the disapproval of the established Loyalist politicians.

Stop work, or else

THE DAY the strike began Ernest Baird, one of Craig’s supporters, told the Northern Ireland Assembly of the plans that had been drawn up. The aim was to cut off all electricity to industry, forcing a total shutdown. Enough power would be generated for essential services and domestic use. If power continued to be used for industrial production, the power plants would be closed altogether.

So from the outset the UWC had revealed the nature of its action. It had certain key men in the one key industry on which all the rest depended. Bring them out and everyone else would be forced to follow suit. There was no attempt made to build up democratic structures at grassroots level, so that workers throughout the North would down tools when the strike call was issued. The workers would be forced to down tools as there would be no power for continued production.

In the initial stages of the strike massive intimidation was vital to ensure the success of the UWC call.

At the shipyards only 50-100 men out of 10,000 voted in favour of the strike on the day after it was supposed to begin. Threats that workers’ cars would be burned if the yards were not empty by 2.30 p.m. succeeded where calls for support had failed. The man who moved the strike-support resolution was a foreman. In Shorts, UWC supporters were spreading rumours among the majority of workers, who did not support the strike, so that there was an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty in which workers drifted out of the factory and back to their homes.

Mackies factory, where 98 per cent of the workers are Protestant, closed down only after 200 UDA men, masked and armed with cudgels and guns, marched in and ordered everyone out. The huge Michelin tyre factory was closed by similar tactics – several workers who refused to support the strike ended up in hospital, some seriously injured.

In Derry, Catholic workers attempting to get to work were met at a Loyalist barricade by a force of British soldiers who fired rubber bullets at the workers as they tried to break through the road block. They were driven back from work by the army.

On several occasions when barricades were erected in Loyalist areas – in an attempt to prevent workers from getting to work – the army and police intervened only to redirect traffic and warn people against attempting to get through.

Those who continued to turn up for work – and thousands did so every day – knew that they ran the risk of severe retaliation by the UWC and its backers. Workers were visited in their homes and advised against going to work. They also knew that even if they made it to work without meeting violent opposition on the way, there was little orno chance of them being able to do anything because of power cuts. It was a brave man who made the effort day after day.

Even on the day troops moved into the petrol stations – when the atmosphere was most tense and massive violence appeared likely – almost 1,000 workers reported for work at Shorts. Given also that there was no transport – not because bus men spontaneously supported the strike but because buses were called in after Loyalists had hijacked and burned some – workers had to make the journey to work each day by foot. Some of the biggest working-class housing estates are up to six miles from workplaces.

But intimidation was not the only factor keeping up the momentum of the strike, and it would be a dangerous illusion to assume that it was. For the strike to have been so widespread and effective it must have had a great deal of grassroots support. The idea spread by the Communist Party that this was not a strike but a lock-out, enforced simply by the barrel of a gun, seriously underestimates the depth of Loyalist reaction.

If the strike depended on massive intimidation at first there is little doubt that as it grew it caught the imagination of ever deeper layers of Protestant workers who had stood on the sidelines for the past five years watching helplessly as professional politicians and paramilitary armies vainly carried on the struggle to reassert the Protestant ascendancy. There was at last a way in which they could act, and a way which might win where all else had failed.

This increased greatly as the British state stood idly by and allowed the momentum to build up.

It is true that on the fifth day of the strike a meeting of 300 shop stewards and trade union officials voted by about 293-7 to organise return-to-work marches the following Tuesday, but when it came to it most of the stewards themselves did not turn up, let alone persuade the workers they represented, despite the much-publicised presence of TUC general secretary Len Murray. Indeed, the failure of the marches undoubtedly gave a massive boost to the Ulster Workers Council and to the strike. Strength was added to the UWC claim that it alone represented the true voice of Loyalist workers.

The real point is that the aims of the strike were aims accepted by the vast majority of Protestant workers – and, indeed, by much of the Protestant middle class. In the first days of the strike no one knew what the UWC was and few people expected the strike to succeed in overthrowing Sunningdale when votes, bombs and sectarian murders had failed. It was hardly surprising that large numbers of Protestant workers did not join it. But once it became clear the strike was succeeding, this attitude began to change.

It was this that allowed a virtual ‘dual power’ situation to emerge, in which the British army seemed helpless and strike leaders talked of a provisional government. Their orders were automatically obeyed. At UWC headquarters – located significantly in the central offices of Craig’s Vanguard Party – businessmen, industrialists and bankers queued to beg for UWC passes and many were unceremoniously turned away by 16-year-old denim-clad youths.

Heavy UVF and UDA men, with noticeable bulges under their leather jackets, stood guard on the strikers’ HQ. UVF men guarded consignments of petrol around the province. The UWC laid down the law about when shops could and could not open. In most parts of the city outside the Catholic ghettoes, their word was obeyed. Even shops in respectable middle-class suburbs displayed Ulster Army Council notices stating who could do what, when and where.

It was becoming increasingly obvious that the UWC had organised a massive Loyalist rebellion. Inventiveness and ingenuity had played their part – for instance when it looked as if the continued use of vehicle barricades might have caused a confrontation with the army, the UWC ordered their removal and instead announced an end to all petrol movements as a more effective and passive means of halting movement through and between towns. In place of hijacked cars and lorries they put human chains which were mobile and easily removed in the event of army hostility – only to be replaced as soon as the threat had passed.

Sections of the riding-class press were quick to note the dramatic change. The UWC ‘now appears to have the loyalty of a large number of Protestant workers,’ wrote the Financial Times, in an editorial on 22 May. The Times remarked, probably quite correctly, that

‘ministers in London simply have not got the measure of what is taking place in Belfast or understood the nature of the support that this political strike is receiving.’ (Times editorial, 23 May).

But as the message sank in, the will of the British government to resist ebbed away. Their hopes that the strike would die a natural death as its LAW predecessors had done were daydreams. As the strike grew, the possibility of a successful military intervention disappeared.

Undoubtedly the army, backed by the navy, could have guaranteed sufficient electrical power for essential services. But in that event the UWC would simply issue a call for a total walk-out of all workers everywhere – and half a million people cannot be forced back to work at the point of a gun.

Of course the army too had particular interest in avoiding a situation like this, where soldiers would have to provide all the essential services – right down to digging graves. In fact it was the use of troops to take over the petrol stations that ensured the collapse of the Executive.

The strike began without overriding support in the Protestant working class and its aims were reactionary. But as it developed it came to enjoy real support and showed how massive the power of working class action could be.

What was the Ulster Workers’ Council

THE Ulster Workers Council claimed to represent the Ulster working class. Certainly it was able to start a strike movement that came to be supported by the majority, Protestant section of that class. But that does not mean that in any real sense the UWC was a leadership thrown up by the workers in the course of their struggle.

The men on the UWC represented a very narrow base. It was not a democratically elected body, but self-appointed and highly centralised. It was based neither on the factories nor the trade unions – in this respect it was nothing like the workers’ councils which have emerged in the past in countries such as Russia in 1917, Germany in 1918 or Hungary in 1956.

Many of the known members of the UWC seem at first sight to have impeccable credentials: Glenn Barr, 12 years a shop steward; Harry Pattison, assistant senior steward in Short Brothers; Harry Murray, steelworkers’ steward at Harland and Wolff; Jim McIlwain, transport workers’ union convenor in Sirocco engineering works.

But there is more to these men than first meets the eye. Glenn Barr is now far removed from the factory floor as an Assembly member for William Craig’s Vanguard Party – and Craig himself has a long history of anti-trade unionism. Barr is also a member of the inner council of the Ulster Defence Association, so is implicated in the organisation of sectarian attacks on Catholic workers.

Pattison made a name for himself when, surrounded by his ‘heavies’, he attempted unsuccessfully to organise resistance in Shorts to the official trade union stoppage on May Day last year on the grounds that it was a ‘political strike’. Even his position as a steward is dubious – the post of ‘deputy senior steward’ for the 200 sheet metal workers was created specially for him after he lost a disputed election for the stewardship.

The architect of the UWC is supposed to be one Hugh Petrie. Petrie works in Short Brothers, but he holds no important union post there and is better known as ex-co-chairman of the Loyalist Association of Workers and former bodyguard to William Craig.

What is more, not all the council’s executive are workers.

Sammy (I’m laughing at the Dublin bombs) Smyth, another UDA boss, apart from being a failed Queen’s University student, is a failed sales manager now on the dole. Ken Gibson, the official UVF spokesman who has emerged as one of the leaders of the UWC Executive, is a painter of Orange Order banners and has been interned for his involvement in ‘militant’ Loyalist activity – hardly in keeping with the UWC’s claims to be a non-sectarian, genuine working-class body.

Had the UWC directly represented the workers, even if only the Protestant workers, it could not have avoided taking up other issues that have worried workers since its formation. When the Engineers’ Union called a national stoppage of its members over the seizure of its funds by the NIRC, exactly a week before the Loyalist strike began, thousands of workers in Belfast shipyards, aircraft and engineering works downed tools and walked out. The UWC remained completely silent on the issue.

Throughout the ‘general strike’ itself several other industrial disputes were going on over wages and conditions, including nurses, maintenance men at Grundig, cement workers, workers in two breweries and busmen. Again the UWC had nothing to say about struggles involving sizeable numbers of ‘Ulster’ workers.

Some of the organisations which worked with the UWC during the strike claim to have programmes of social demands. The Ulster Volunteer Force, for instance, claims to be against not only the ‘violence of the Provisional Republican Alliance’ and the ‘violence of the security forces’, but also ‘the violence of unemployment ... the violence of bad housing’. Yet once the strike had begun, all these material demands were ignored – all that mattered was getting back to a state dominated by Loyalists.

This background throws into perspective the question of ‘intimidation’. Any strike demands action to prevent scabbing. The point about the barricades, intimidation, hijackings and car burnings, is that they were not a spontaneous response by the strikers against blacklegs or scabs. They were conducted by the ultra-Loyalist, bitterly sectarian paramilitary armies, whose only real activity before this had been the indiscriminate murder of Catholic workers for no reason other than their religion. They were not aimed against scabs, but against sections of the working class who had not followed the sectarian-inspired directives of the UWC – a body to which they owed no allegiance, which they had not elected, which most of them had probably never heard of, and which was responsible to no one.

By no stretch of the imagination could these paramilitary organisations be described as workers’ defence squads – as emerged in some areas in the British General Strike of 1926. They are non-democratic in structure and frequently under the control of ex-British army officers.

The role of the paramilitary groups – UDA, UVF, Orange Volunteers and others – was greater than simply erecting barricades and carrying out intimidation in the early stages. As the strike progressed, control at local level fell almost exclusively into their hands. They organised the distribution of essential services. They took over the petrol stations, the emptying of dustbins, the allocation of bread and milk supplies, the distribution of bottled gas.

At local level too the established right-wing Unionist parties, the ultra-reactionary Orange Order and local clergy set up advice and distribution centres. Passes for small businessmen and others who could justify continuing in business during the strike were often allocated through Orange halls.

In Portadown the distribution of passes for those in essential services was organised not by workers but by the UUUC, based in the Orange Hall. In Carryduff the UUUC, led by Vanguard Councillor Miss M. Corrie – a vicious anti-Catholic – organised essential supplies.

The Loyalist politicians and the strike

THE ESTABLISHED political representatives of the Protestant workers, the middle-class Loyalist politicians of the UUUC, did not begin to support the strike until it had built up its own momentum.

On its first full day, 15 May, William Craig stated that

‘Loyalist politicians are now confronted with a situation which is not of their own making’, while William Thompson, the Loyalist Assembly man from Mid-Ulster said he was ‘absolutely opposed to the strike’.

Three days later the Vanguard Westminster MP the Rev Robert Bradford publicly called on the UWC to end its strike and go back to work. Craig stated that he was hoping for talks with the government ‘to see if the strike can be ended’.

However, once the strike was well under way, the Loyalist politicians not only swung behind the UWC in supporting it, but began to take over the political direction themselves. The strike might have begun as a reaction of Loyalist workers to Sunningdale, but it quickly became a movement dominated by middle-class, sectarian politicians.

Ties between the UWC and the Ulster Army Council, the umbrella organisation of Loyalist armies, had always existed – with Glenn Barr of the UDA and Ken Gibson of the UVF in daily contact with the UWC. But as the middle class swung behind the strike – and then in front of it – the co-ordinating committee of the UWC and UAC was expanded to incorporate them. Before the strike had ended Craig and West were actually issuing statements on behalf of the UWC and members of the UWC were frankly admitting that politics were the concern of the United Ulster Unionists.

All the rallies and marches in support of the strike showed how this worked in practice. In Portadown a massive rally was organised by the UUUC on 21 May. It was addressed by three professional politicians, Douglas Hutchinson, Herbert Whitten and Dr Thomas Carson, with the Mayor of Craigavon, James McCammick, and Councillor Fred Crowe-all solid right-wingers. The UDA and UVF also had official representation. The only people not involved were the UWC themselves.

The following day a similar rally was organised in Lisburn, where the Rev Beattie, who a few days previously called on workers to end the strike, promised that they would ‘starve to win’. Again, no UWC members, and indeed no workers at all, spoke.

On the streets, at the rallies and the parades, it was Vanguard and Official Unionist politicians, clergymen and Orange masters who addressed the crowds, explaining how the answer to the crisis was to return them in even greater numbers to positions of power and influence. The idea that any power might slip directly into the hands of the workers who had organised the stoppage, ended Sunningdale and toppled the power-sharing Executive, was ruled out from the start.

Indeed, so long as the Loyalist workers were saying nothing very different from the smooth-talking politicians, why not let them take over as spokesmen for the strike? They could, after all, say it much better than the stumbling, embarrassed and unsure men like Harry Murray, chairman of the Belfast Workers Council, whose voice was heard less and less.

Perhaps the most significant factor explaining the ‘takeover’ of the strike by the middle-class politicians, apart from the close identification of aims just mentioned, was the fact that the strike was organised on a territorial and geographical basis, as opposed to an industrial one. The strikers, immediately on stopping work, left the factories, depots, shipyards and power stations – the only place where they, as workers, shared a unique, common and collective existence, isolated from the distinctive and conscious anti-working class elements that lurked in the ghettoes to which the strikers retreated.

Here the non-working class forces had free reign. The MPs, whose constituencies the ghettoes were, were entitled, without invitation or consultation with the strikers such as would have been required had they wished to enter the factories, to come and go as they pleased, organise meetings, as they had always done, without appearing to usurp the strikers’ authority. The Orange Order halls, always a focal point in the ghettoes for bazaars, jumble sales, social occasions, and so on, became centres for the local organisers of the UWC.

The clergymen, who had rarely, if ever, given their support to workers’ struggles in the past, could make use of their ‘inalienable right’ to address their ‘congregation’ – in other words a social gathering much wider in class composition than the actual number of striking workers within it and therefore able to create the feeling of inter-class solidarity – on any political or social matter they chose without anyone questioning their motives for so doing.

With the UWC headquarters established in the Vanguard Party’s central offices, a rather imposing building, the UWC were in a sense the guests of Bill Craig, long-standing enemy of the trade union movement.

The ultra-right wing party operators of Vanguard could come and go as they pleased. The HQ was open to any and every exponent of ultra-Unionism. It was not under the control of the workers themselves. They were not masters in their own house.

In the months before the strike a tendency had developed for the grassroots Loyalist organisations to make much of their break with the ‘Unionist fur coat brigade’ of middle-class politicians. The UVF, for instance, has praised itself as the only Loyalist organisation attempting to combat the infiltration of ‘communists’ into the Loyalist camp.

Yet in the strike itself, the most remarkable things were the complete absence of any separate working-class demands and the ease with which the ‘fur coat brigade’ of middle-class politicians could take it over. Many of the Loyalist workers ended up voicing the opinion that Bill Craig and Harry West were ‘workers’ leaders’.

There could hardly be a better indication of how the Loyalism of Protestant workers keeps them under the thumb of their class enemies. At times of crisis, Loyalism always tends to make them forget their interests as workers. The strike proved the immense power at the disposal of Belfast’s workers – yet it was directed totally towards reinstating a political system in which the Craigs and the Wests might enjoy parliamentary power, and not at all towards dealing with any of the day-to-day problems of the workers.

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