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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 May, 2004, 09:38 GMT 10:38 UK
Fall of Sunningdale recounted
Ulster Workers Council strike 1974
Roads were blocked by loyalist paramilitaries
The story of the Ulster Workers' Council strike which brought Northern Ireland to a standstill 30 years ago is to be told in a BBC documentary.

Shutdown will recount the events leading up to the strike in 1974, which killed off the Sunningdale Agreement - the 1970s equivalent of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Good Friday Agreement.

The UWC committee which ran the strike included paramilitary leaders from groups such as the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force.

The key to the strike was whether the government could maintain electricity supplies.

It could not and industrial production was wrecked with power cuts of up to 18 hours.

Streets were blocked off and petrol stations were controlled by loyalist paramilitaries.

Official unionist leader Brian Faulkner and Prime Minister Edward Heath
The signing of the Sunningdale Agreement enraged loyalists

Rubbish was not collected and there were reports that undertakers would not bury the dead.

Initially, little attention was paid to the UWC but staff at Ballylumford power station in County Antrim were persuaded to support the strike.

"We were met by one of the leading politicians in Larne who persuaded the power workers at the time to take part in the action," said Trevor Peoples.

"Quite a lot of people in the station did not want to take part in the strike but because we lived in an area that was fairly loyalist, a lot of people found that there were road blocks and they couldn't get to their work anyway.

"People were threatened in their own homes, doors were locked and people were told not to go to their work."

Glen Barr, who was described at the time as a senior adviser to the UDA, played a leading part in the strike.

"Everybody knows that after the second or third day there was no discouragement, there was no need for it," he said.

"This whole concept that if the Army had moved against us they would have broken the strike, but everybody was well warned there was to be no confrontation with the security forces because we knew precisely that they would try to draw us into confrontation and that was what would have discredited the whole thing."

The Northern Ireland Office was folding its arms and waiting to see if the executive would survive
Don Anderson
Author

Don Anderson, a BBC journalist in 1974 who has written a book about the strike, explained why the strikers succeeded.

"By the end of the 14 day period I think there is clear evidence that the strikers had won support," he said.

"The strikers were able to operate in the assumption that generally Protestants were going to back them.

"One of the reasons for this was that it was evident that the Northern Ireland Office was not backing the executive. It was folding its arms and waiting to see if the executive would survive.

"That being the case, in effect the government, the running of the place such as it was in all the chaos, passed to the strikers."

The contents of a memo drafted during the strike by the then secretary of state, Merlyn Rees- are revealed in Wednesday's programme.

"While the Northern Ireland Executive remains in being, there can be no real movement. But the situation changes once they go" - this has been typed over with "either by resignation or by being sacked".

Power-sharing

Former SDLP leader John Hume, then Executive Minister of Commerce, said he was astonished by the memo.

"That new material would suggest that they wanted the executive which is astonishing, to come down," he said.

"They simply stood aside and allowed the workers council strike run by paramilitary organisations to succeed."

The political backdrop to the strike began in late 1973, when the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath held talks at Sunningdale in Berkshire with the Irish Government and three of the province's political parties - the Official Unionists led by Brian Faulkner, the nationalist SDLP and the non-sectarian Alliance.

They agreed to set up a power-sharing executive body for Northern Ireland and, eventually, a Council of Ireland involving the Irish Republic with limited jurisdiction over issues of joint concern between north and south.

The declaration also recognised the wishes of unionists to remain within the UK and nationalists for a united Ireland.

Both sides agreed that the will of the majority should be respected.

However, hardline loyalists - led by Harry West, Ian Paisley and William Craig - did not attend most of the talks at Sunningdale, and when the proposals were announced, they criticised them strongly.

Former NI Secretary Mervyn Rees
NI Secretary Mervyn Rees reimposed direct rule following the strike

The new executive took power formally on 1 January 1974 with Brian Faulkner as its chief executive and SDLP leader Gerry Fitt as his deputy, but it swiftly ran into trouble.

While the three parties represented on the executive had a majority in the province's assembly, which had been elected the previous year, it faced strong opposition from loyalists opposed to power-sharing.

On one occasion, the police had to eject loyalists including Mr Paisley forcibly from the chamber.

The same month, Mr Faulkner was defeated 427-374 in the Unionist Council, the governing body of his party, when he tried to win approval for Sunningdale.

He was replaced as Official Unionist leader by Harry West.

In February, a general election saw Labour returned to power in Westminster and 11 of the 12 seats in Northern Ireland won by unionists opposed to the deal under the umbrella of the United Ulster Unionist Council.

Of those supporting the executive, only Gerry Fitt was elected as the UUUC won more than 50% of the vote.

With the Sunningdale executive tottering on the edge of breaking up, the coup de grace was delivered by the UWC strike in May after the assembly approved the agreement.

Direct rule was reimposed by Mr Rees and the assembly prorogued.

Shutdown: The Inside Story of the Ulster Workers' Strike on BBC ONE NI on Wednesday, May 12 at 2250 BST.



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