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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 179 Contents

Socialist Review, October 1994

Judith Orr


Paramilitary pressure


From Socialist Review, No. 179, October 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Fourteen May Days: The Inside Story of the Loyalist Strike of 1974
Don Anderson
Gill and MacMillan £7.99

It was a pleasure to watch Ian Paisley marching out of 10 Downing Street after being rebuffed by John Major over the IRA ceasefire. Despite all his huffing and puffing his threats can no longer hold the British government to ransom in the way that the Loyalists were able to in 1974.

Don Anderson’s behind the scenes account of the strike that succeeded in scuppering an attempt at power sharing – the Sunningdale agreement – has been put together from interviews and documents that he gathered as a journalist at the time. It makes fascinating reading, firstly because it dispels the myth that the strike was won because the support of Protestant workers was so solid and secondly, because it puts the events of this past year in some sort of perspective.

At the beginning of 1974 a new Northern Ireland executive was set up including members of both the Unionist and the middle class Catholic party – SDLP. After 50 years of Unionist domination and discrimination against Catholics, the rotten Stormont administration could no longer rule in the old way in the face of the mass social upheaval of the movement for civil rights on the streets.

The strike was called by Harry Murray – a Loyalist shop steward in the shipyard – in the name of the ‘Ulster Workers’ Council’, yet in reality the strike was run by the Protestant paramilitaries without whom the result would have been very different. For instance in Murray’s own workplace – Harland and Wolff – much of the workforce turned up for work as normal on the first day of the strike, and only a handful attended a strike meeting called that morning. Many workers only left work when threats were made that any cars still in the car park that afternoon would be burnt, and that street barricades would stop workers reaching home that night.

In fact support for the strike at the start was reckoned to be no more than 10 percent. But the intimidation that was to follow soon shifted the balance. Anderson describes petrol bombs being thrown into the Gallagher factory car park and women workers at the Michelin plant at Mallusk being attacked and injured by pickets. A bogus car bomb was used to stop the Metal Box plant in Portadown. All over Belfast groups of paramilitaries roamed around closing shops, pubs and factories with veiled or open threats of violence. One young engineering worker was hospitalised after being severely beaten up at two successive street barricades. The campaign of violence was not restricted to stopping people from going into work. Only days into the strike three car bombs went off in Dublin and Monaghan in the middle of the rush hour killing 33 people.

Though hundreds of complaints were made about intimidation, the police and army seemed happy to stand by and just watch cars being hijacked and barricades going up. The port of Larne was sealed off by paramilitaries. Rather than confront the thugs, the police actually met a deputation of them complaining about ill treatment, while a hundred hooded men in paramilitary dress were allowed to stand in ranks outside the police station!

The book spells out in all its awful detail how Harold Wilson’s Labour government sat back and seemed both unwilling and unable to intervene in support of parliamentary democracy against armed gangs and their political allies. It wasn’t long before Paisley and his cronies came out in public support for the strike leaving no one in any doubt just how close the UDA was to the Loyalist politicians.

Yet as Anderson points out none of this was inevitable. Andy Tyrie of the UDA and Glenn Barr, who chaired the strike coordinating committee, admitted after the strike was over that if the army had intervened decisively from day one to keep the roads clear, the open intimidation and barricades would have been difficult to maintain without wholesale confrontation.

Instead the hardline Loyalists were able to smash their way through the newly formed power sharing government which fell on the 14th day of the strike. They had brought the six counties to a standstill: electricity was at dangerously low levels – in Belfast power was only on for 90 minutes for every five hours off. Petrol became a most precious commodity, only available to those with a pass issued by the UWC. Queues would form outside the strike headquarters of everyone from managing directors (who normally didn’t get passes) to nurses (who normally did).

This book is useful for showing how the Unionists managed to pull off such a strike but also points out that Paisley was unable to repeat the tactic only three years later. It is even more clear today that far from being puppets of the paramilitaries, Protestant workers have shown their willingness to oppose sectarian killings.

Don’t read this for any serious political analysis of either the Protestant working class in particular or the troubles in general. Any British journalist who can write without irony: ‘Where the political wildcats of Northern Ireland seek to divide and embitter, all the major parties in Britain have sought to heal and unite,’ has to be read with some scepticism.

But this book does demonstrate just how much has changed in Northern Ireland since 1974, not least weakening the image of the monolith of Unionism as a permanent block on the Protestant working class.

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