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Tough response to loyalist strike
Ulster Workers Council strike 1974
The loyalist strike did not meet with the "success" of 1974

Newly released papers show that the 1977 loyalist strike in Northern Ireland met with a tough response from the British government, historian Dr Eamon Phoenix writes.

The 1977 strike of the United Unionist Action Council (UUAC), led by Rev Ian Paisley and supported by the UDA and Ulster Workers Council, features heavily in this year's release of previously confidential files by the Public Record Office in Belfast.

The documents reveal the determination of the British military to seize power stations, if necessary, and the view of officials at the height of the crisis that Mr Paisley was "associated with paramilitaries" and might be charged with conspiracy.

The strike was launched on May 2, 1977 by Mr Paisley and his political ally, Ernest Baird to protest against an alleged lack of security and to demand a return to unionist majority-rule government at Stormont.

On the eve of the crisis on 1 May 1977, Secretary of State Roy Mason received a secret military assessment by Lt Col P B Evans, Moscow Camp, Belfast.

Lt Col Evans observed that a strike was being "threatened for political ends by extreme right-wing elements of the Protestant loyalist faction".

He added: "The leaders of strike action have manoeuvred themselves into a situation in which they dare not back down in case they lose political credence in the future."

Lt Col Evans concluded: "The government has stated that it will not allow essential services to come to a halt."

In light of this, it was his view that the British army should seize oil refineries and key installations at dawn on May 5, 1977.

The ongoing crisis was discussed at a meeting of Permanent Secretaries at Stormont Castle on Wednesday, 4 May, 1977.

Officials learned that it was still uncertain whether the key power workers at Ballylumford (in east Antrim) would come out in support of the strike.

Things remained "delicate" but Mr Mason was unwilling to accept the situation where the tanker drivers accepted their orders from the strike committee.

British soldiers
The Army was prepared to seize power stations

Summing up, Mr R H Kidd, an official, told the meeting: "Day one of the strike had probably been a bad day from the government's viewpoint, but day two had been much more encouraging."

At a further meeting at Stormont Castle on May 5 1977, Mr Kidd reported on a general and continuing return to work.

The Ballylumford power workers had seen the UUAC and were now meeting the secretary of state.

The signs were reasonably hopeful of an early end to the stoppage, though intimidation was still widespread.

"There was no doubt that many in the community were opposed to the strike because of the methods used, rather than the aims behind it," Mr Kidd said.

At their next meeting on 9 May, officials reported indications that support for the strike was dwindling were offset by the UDA murder of a bus driver, Harry Bradshaw, in north Belfast.

The possibility of arresting Mr Paisley was raised at a meeting between the permanent under-secretary of the NIO, Brian Cubbon, and permanent secretaries at Stormont on 10 May.

The question was raised of whether outsiders who had sought to influence "anti-strike" workers at Ballylumford Power Station should be "apprehended since their action was tantamount to coercion, aimed at bringing industry to a halt".

Mr Cubbon observed that this was a difficult legal area since the tactics of those involved might be seen as "peaceful persuasion".

Ian Paisley
The possibility of arresting Ian Paisley was discussed

The minutes continue: "It was pointed out, however, that the person responsible, Mr Paisley, was associated with and had the support of the Protestant paramilitaries and it was queried whether he ought not to be held for conspiracy."

The permanent under-secretary explained that this was a prosecution rather than a legal problem.

Officials expressed the hope that when the strike ended, there would be no question of a formula being devised "to allow Mr Paisley off the hook".

It was suggested that the DUP leader had a marked facility for finding his own way out of situations, but even if he were "dislodged from his pinnacle", his followers would not be shaken and would continue to pursue his objectives.

By Thursday, 13 May, the situation had improved sufficiently for Roy Mason to take the salute at a passing-out parade of the Royal Irish Rangers in Mr Paisley's heartland of Ballymena .

At a final meeting of the Stormont Castle committee officials considered that the main reason for the strike's collapse had been "the fact that, unlike the 1974 UWC Strike, the UUAC had no single clear objective to unite the various shades of unionist opinion".

Another important factor was the contrast in the economic backgrounds between 1974 and 1977.

In the present uncertain economic atmosphere, men were afraid of losing their jobs, a fact highlighted by recent industrial closures.

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