50 years since the UWC stoppage

May 2024 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC) stoppage. This was a sectarian mobilisation which brought Northern Ireland to a standstill for two weeks, and forced the abandonment of the first attempt at power-sharing government here. It acts as a warning of the potential for sectarianism to infect and divide the workers’ movement in the absence of a fighting, socialist lead.

May 2024 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC) stoppage. This was a sectarian mobilisation which brought Northern Ireland to a standstill for two weeks, and forced the abandonment of the first attempt at power-sharing government here. It acts as a warning of the potential for sectarianism to infect and divide the workers’ movement in the absence of a fighting, socialist lead.

The UWC was formed in response to the Sunningdale Agreement of December 1973, which proposed the establishment of a power-sharing executive involving ‘liberal’ Unionists (led by Brian Faulkner), the Alliance Party, and the SDLP, then the largest party of nationalism. It also included the establishment of a Council of Ireland, bringing together representatives of the Northern executive and Southern government to co-operate on issues of common interest. Doubtless, many Protestants were suspicious of power-sharing in the turbulent days of the early 1970s, but the ‘Dublin-dimension’ – although largely symbolic – rang alarm bells that this was a step towards a united Ireland.

In February 1974, Harold Wilson’s Labour government was forced to call a general election to legitimise its rule as it increasingly clashed with the trade unions. In Northern Ireland, anti-Sunningdale Unionists united behind a single candidate in each constituency and won 11 of the 12 seats, reflecting the sectarian gerrymandering of the time. This undermined the legitimacy of the agreement and of Faulkner. Calls from anti-agreement Unionists for fresh Assembly elections were ignored and the ratification of the agreement pushed the UWC into action, announcing an all-out stoppage from 15th May.

The UWC was primarily a mouthpiece for the loyalist paramilitaries, particularly the UDA, although it had representatives from across heavy industry, with workers in the ports and Ballylumford power station being of particular strategic importance. The action was called over the heads of Protestant workers, with no debate or democratic mandate. Therefore, while many would have sympathised with its aims, the stoppage was initially met with indifference or even hostility from most, with only 10-20% of the workforce taking part and many workers organising to push past UWC pickets. Glenn Barr, one of the UWC’s key spokespersons, has admitted that the stoppage could have been easily snuffed out at this stage. In response, the UDA was mobilised to increase intimidation over the following days. The UVF’s horrific Dublin-Monaghan bombings on 17th May killed 34 civilians and demonstrated that the loyalist paramilitaries were not a force to be taken lightly.

There is evidence that some within British military intelligence who were hostile to Wilson’s government advised against using troops to break the strike, hoping its development would deal a blow to the government and assist a return to Tory rule. Indeed, there is also credible evidence of security force collaboration in the Dublin-Monaghan bombings. The official leadership of the trade union movement, who had been on the retreat politically since the outset of the Troubles and whose authority was diminished as a result, largely opposed the stoppage but gave no lead to workplace activists on what to do, hoping it would simply peter out. The Northern Ireland Labour Party – which had developed mass support across the sectarian divide and shifted to the left during the 1960s – was also paralysed and divided by developments, with its right-wing de facto backing the sectarian stoppage, ultimately cementing its demise as a serious political force.

A combination of inaction by the state and the trade union leaders, paramilitary intimidation, and the impact of strike action in the power stations and ports allowed the stoppage to gain momentum. The more it looked like it might succeed in its aims, the more sympathetic Protestant workers came behind the action. The stoppage had little support in predominantly Catholic areas but disruption to electricity supply and the flow of goods – particularly petrol – had an impact across the North and forced the closure of factories and other businesses. By the time both the state and the trade union leaders attempted to move against the stoppage, they found they no longer had the power to do so. They were suspended in mid-air, with the UWC now co-ordinating the running of essential services and the distribution of petrol and other commodities. This was most clearly seen when Len Murray, then General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, led a ‘back-to-work’ march in Belfast but it drew only 200 people and was attacked by loyalists.

An extremely ill-advised intervention by Harold Wilson on 25th May gave the strike new impetus. He made a broadcast speech in which he referred to the strikers as “people who spend their lives sponging on Westminster and British democracy and then systematically assault democratic methods”. This was interpreted as an attack on the Protestant working class as a whole. Many people began to wear pieces of sponge on their lapels as a rebuke to Wilson, and participation and enthusiasm rose. On 28th May, Faulkner and his colleagues resigned from the executive and the Sunningdale Agreement was dead in the water.

The UWC stoppage saw sectarian forces utilise elements of class struggle – in a top-down and undemocratic manner, combined with paramilitary violence – to advance their agenda. This injected sectarian tension and division into communities and workplaces and threatened to divide the workers’ movement as a whole. It also demonstrated, in a distorted manner, the power of working-class action, with a minority of the working-class acting on a sectarian basis being able to bring society to a halt and defeat the British government’s attempt to introduce power-sharing.

Calls for the establishment of a separate ‘Ulster’ (in reality, Protestant) Trade Union Congress were buoyed by the victory of the stoppage. Thankfully, this was successfully resisted by class-conscious union activists, who saw how disastrous it would be for the interests of the working class. These activists ensured that the trade union movement was not divided on sectarian lines and was therefore capable of uniting workers in anti-sectarian struggles that emerged later in 1970s, and also cut across an attempt at a second UWC stoppage in 1977. Then, shop stewards organised mass meetings in a number of key workplaces, including the shipyard, and in each case, workers voted overwhelmingly not to participate.

Today, the political and economic landscape is different in many ways, but there are still lessons of relevance to be drawn from the experience of the UWC stoppage. The question of Northern Ireland’s position within the UK is increasingly coming under question, primarily due to demographic changes but also the impact of Brexit. In this context, sectarianism can re-assert itself and threaten to drag us back into conflict. The trade union movement, representing over 200,000 workers from across the sectarian divide, can potentially act as a bulwark against this trend, as it has at a series of key junctures. However, the leadership of the movement remains dominated by conservative bureaucrats who shy away from independent political action and increasingly echo the positions of nationalism, which threatens to alienate Protestant workers.

We need to reclaim the unions, from the bottom-up, as democratic, fighting organisations, campaigning not just on workplace issues, but on every issue which impacts the working class, independent of the state and of the Green and Orange parties. That means decisively mobilising the power of the working class to challenge sectarianism in all its forms, inside and outside the workplace. Crucially, it also requires the building of a mass anti-sectarian party of the working class which can challenge the political dominance of Unionism and nationalism, uniting workers around our common interests and pointing the way towards a democratic socialist solution to the conflict here, which would create a society free from poverty and oppression, and guarantee the rights of all communities.

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