Workers Unity Cripples Paisley
Militant Irish Monthly June 1977
The so-called General Strike organised by the Ulster Unionist Action Council (UUAC) was finally called off after ten days. This decision represented a crushing and humiliating defeat for Ian Paisley and all the reactionaries in the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and para-military groups who gave backbone to the stoppage.
The workers of Northern Ireland broke the stoppage as easily as cracking a rotten twig. Despite intimidation, attacks and open murder, they continued to go to work. Three years ago the Ulster Workers Council closed industry by a campaign of intimidation. This time workers refused to be cowed.
On the first day workers overwhelmingly swept past the pickets organised by the UUAC. In strong 'loyalist' areas some barricades were erected by cordons of UDA members who formed human barriers across streets. In the Shankill Road workers defied this action, waiting until they had large enough groups before marching past the wall of pickets.
As the threat of intimidation was clearly insufficient, the second morning the thugs began to systematically stop and threaten bus drivers. One was injured. A mass meeting of busmen was held at their union headquarters and voted overwhelmingly to continue driving.
By the end of the first week the stoppage had been shown to lack support.
Even in 'loyal' Ballymena shops and factories remained open. Only in Marne, though a massive intimidation, were the docks closed and life ground to a halt. Over the weekend the UUAC tried to tighten the screws of intimidation. They directed more and more of their attention to the main Ballylumford power station which provides 75% of Northern Ireland's electricity. But al their efforts failed to crack the resolve of the Ballylumford men to stay at work.
By the beginning of the second week a section at least of the UUAC decided intimidation was not enough. They resorted to murder itself. A car bomb blew up in the forecourt of a petrol station. This was the signal to 'encourage' other stations that it would be 'healthier' too close. But to their horror they found that the person killed in the explosion was none other than a son of a member of the Action Council!
On Tuesday afternoon a Belfast bus driver was shot in the cabin of his bus. Busmen held a mass meeting and decided to strike, not in support of the UUAC but in protest at the intimidation. Two days later a petrol tanker driver was shot and on that evening an attempt was made to kill a power station shop steward. The tactic was to use the bullet and bomb to close down essential services. But the heroic stand of the busmen and the courage of the working people of Northern Ireland were victorious.
If the stoppage had succeeded the vice of sectarianism would have tightened. It would have been a grave setback for the trade union movement. Paisley's original demand for a return of a Protestant dominated Stormont and for a further repression against the Catholic population would have been no help whatsoever to the working class.
But the Labour Movement emerged with only a fraction of the strength to could have gained if the trade union leaders had used to power of the working class. The Labour and Trade Union Co-ordinating Group called for shop floor and area meetings of shop stewards to discuss how the defence of workers could be organised. Mass demonstrations could have welded the body of the working class together. But such calls were shunned by the leaders of the Labour Movement. They even cancelled the May Day parade on the Saturday 7th May when it could have been an opportunity to intervene decisively in the struggle.
Just one example of the several opportunities wasted on the eighth day when Harry Bradshaw, the bus driver, died while obeying union instructions to stay at work. He died not as a Protestant or Catholic but as a trade unionist. A call from the union leadership would have brought thousands out in a mass demonstration of union solidarity. Instead the union leaders sent only a delegation to see Roy Mason! At the annual conference of the Northern Ireland section of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the leadership even refused en emergency motion to discuss the stoppage the day after the murder.
The leadership opposed independent action by the trade union movement leaning instead towards Roy Mason, the police and the army. But the experience of the last seven years has shown that the troops are incapable of defending workers from injury or death. On the contrary, they have been used as an instrument of brutal repression of working people. No wonder the busmen of Belfast refused the offer of armed soldiers on their buses for protection. The army can be no substitute for the mobilisation of the working class in its own defence.
The determined mood of the busmen and other workers showed how the momentum of the 'strike' was stopped in its tracks. If it had picked up steam the preparations of the army showed how they would act. Troops and heavy vehicles were brought in. Helicopters with machine guns were specially mounted. A terrible confrontation was ion store. In the event it did not happen. Troops were used to disperse UDA pickets here and there but the full force of army repression was not used.
However, they are now preparing for further action against Catholic areas and even protestant where necessary. The methods used today against the IRA or UDA will be used against workers in Britain and Ireland in the future.
Sectarianism has been put on the run but the union leaders have not seized the opportunity for mass action. Paisley declared that he would retire if the strike was not supported. When he saw defeat was inevitable he turned to his power base - the farmers in Antrim. He even provoked his token arrest at a roadblock so that he could use the face saving tactic that his constituents in north Antrim supported him so he need not retire. He and his friends will now await a new opportunity to fan the flames of sectarianism.
The Labour Movement must stop any new chance for him. A campaign organised by the Labour Movement on the class issues of jobs, housing and wages and against sectarianism - building on the broad unity in the workplaces forged by the last ten days which could sweep the Paisleyites and sectarians aside permanently.
A trade union based Labour Party could be built. If a rank and file delegate trade union conference was called now to debate such a mass campaign y the trade unions and to create a political party based on the working class, it could cut across the sectarians, Tories and paramilitaries who dominate the political battleground at the moment.