UWC strike and its effect on the NW 40 years on

Glen Barr addressing a rally in Irish Street.
Glen Barr addressing a rally in Irish Street.

Forty years ago today (May 21) was the exact midway point of the pivotal Ulster Workers’ Council strike when loyalists attempted to bring Northern Ireland to a standstill in protest at the hated Sunningdale power-sharing agreement.

And although most of the activity occurred in the East, several key personalities from the North West were crucially involved in the course of events.

Soliders patrolling the Shell petroleum depot complex at the Bay Road, which was taken over by the Army during the strike.

Soliders patrolling the Shell petroleum depot complex at the Bay Road, which was taken over by the Army during the strike.

These included Londonderry loyalist Glen Barr, Chair of the UWC Coordinating Committee, which ran the strike from the Vanguard Unionist Party HQ in East Belfast, and John Hume, who as Minister of Commerce, had the headache of trying to keep industry going against a back drop of power cuts, supply shortages and pickets.

Killaloo native, Ivan Cooper, had the unenviable brief of Community Relations at a time of near unbearable community tensions.

This was particularly manifest a week after the strike commenced when a mini-riot erupted on Bond’s Hill at around 7.45 in the morning of Wednesday (May 22, 1974) when workers from the predominantely nationalist Cityside tried to cross a loyalist roadblock on their way to work in the Maydown industrial estate.

When the workers arrived at Bond’s Hill they found it had been blocked by a lorry, whilst workers coming off the night shift had earlier found Dale’s Corner blocked by two buses.

The Mex filling station on the Strand Road, which was taken over by troops during a tumultuous May.

The Mex filling station on the Strand Road, which was taken over by troops during a tumultuous May.

According to an Army spokesperson a group of around 150 workers started making its way up Bond’s Hill towards the road block and against Army orders and four rubber bullets were fired at them.

The Sentinel reported it thus: “Three buses were hijacked in Londonderry yesterday morning for about an hour, were used to block Bond’s Hill, in Waterside, one of the main routes for traffic for Limavady, Coleraine and Belfast.

“Another bus was used to block the Trench Road - Warbleshinney Road Junction on the outskirts of the city.”

SDLP Assemblyman Michael Canavan complained to the Secretary of State, Merlyn Rees about the “use of the army to support those who are flouting the British Government.”

The Sentinel reacts to the situation.

The Sentinel reacts to the situation.

During the strike Londonderry was also hit by power shortages, fuel depot closures and bread shortages.

On Thursday (May 23) the Sentinel splashed with the headline ‘Industry Hit’ and the sub-heading ‘Electricity cuts - now gas shut down.’

Londonderry was left without electrical power this Wednesday (May 22) forty years ago as supplies were apparently on a ‘two hours on and six hours off’ pattern.

Production was stopped at four plants at DuPont because of issues with a rota system and the non-delivery of distillate to the Londonderry Gaslight company meant production had to cease on Thursday 23, 1974.

Soldiers at the Shell complex in Londonderry.

Soldiers at the Shell complex in Londonderry.

Many factories had to suspend operations but other businesses, shops and cafes traded without lights or used candles. The distillate shortage resulted in a proposal by members of the Bogside Community Association (BCA) - including Eamonn Deane and the then Rev. Denis Bradley - to drive a 5,000 gallon tanker to Dublin, fill it and return to the city. Whilst the Fine Gael-led Government at the time was favourable to the proposal, Esso and Shell, apparently baulked at the prospect of risking fuel that would have to pass loyalist pickets.

Back in Londonderry the Army was sent into fuel depots and petrol stations to try to bring order to supply. Troops also came under fire from an unknown gunman firing from the Long Tower area, whilst escorting distillate to the gasyard on the Lecky Road. The Executive headed by Brian Faulkner eventually collapsed after Mr Rees refused to negotiate with members of the UWC.

But the events also caused disharmony at local government level with seven members of the nine-strong United Loyalist Group (ULG) walking out of a monthly Council meeting in support of the UWC strike.

The delegation stated: “We wish to add our voice to that of the UWC in that Sunningdale and, in particular, the Council of Ireland, be scrapped. As a further step we would call upon Mr Harold Wilson to sack Mr Rees for his stupid bungling of the Northern Ireland situation.”

This prompted a cooling of relations on the local power-sharing body, which this paper reported had been hitherto an example of cross-party co-operation.

On June 5, 1974 the Sentinel asked if the ‘honeymoon’ on ‘Londonderry City Council [was] over after seven months of power-sharing and co-operation in the Council, the first such local authority in Northern Ireland, which was widely acclaimed by Church and other local authorities as an example in the conduct of local government.”

How the Sentinel reported the strike at the time.

How the Sentinel reported the strike at the time.

This paper also reported on efforts by the UWC to evolve towards community activism in the Waterside.

On June 12, we reported on the ‘Other face of UWC’ and on a project to renovate the old cemetery at Glendermott and on a scheme to send thirty local children to Scotland on holiday.

A few weeks later a rally was organised by the Vanguard Unionist Party in Irish Street on Saturday, June 29.

William Craig told the rally that if Westminster couldn’t form an Executive it was their duty to govern Northern Ireland like any other part of the United Kingdom.

A Sentinel report of the meeting states that Glen Barr, who was a Vanguard Assembly member for Londonderry, told the crowd that “if another Sunningdale was the price of unity with Britain it was too great.”

The rally was attended by a large crowd, which had followed a band parade from Emerson Street.

With the future of Government still in limbo, Mr Barr stated: “We are in a political ball game. The UWC and the paramilitary organisations have done something everyone in the past five years failed to do.”

He said the battle wasn’t over, and stated: “If we fail in this, it is the end of the province.”

He also said: “We have in the past, been led blindly by politicians, who have not had our cause and interests at heart. If we lose, the Protestant faith throughout the world will be lost. We seek to set a platform of unity and let us not be divided by men who seek to further their own power.”