Debate raged on how to handle strikers

 

Executive's last days: Time was running out fast, writes Eamon Phoenix

As the Ulster Workers' Council strike worsened on May 21st, 1974, Northern Ireland's chief minister, Brian Faulkner, warned his colleagues in the doomed Executive that time was running out for its survival.

The minister of commerce, John Hume, told his colleagues that electricity generation was at a critical stage. About 40 per cent of staff at Coolkeeragh, near Derry, were reporting for work - most of them Catholic - but he had been told that if they were allowed to work, Ballylumford (in loyalist east Antrim) would be closed down completely.

The discussion then widened and the question of the Executive's attitude to the strikers was debated. One minister (unnamed in the minutes but clearly Roy Bradford, a Faulkner unionist and minister for environment) argued strongly for opening a dialogue with the strikers "on the grounds of their very wide support and the realities of the situation". However, ministers were generally in favour of taking firm steps to oppose the strikers.

Ministers considered a draft statement on the phasing-in of the Sunningdale agreement. (This had been agreed earlier after tense discussions in the SDLP Assembly group.) It was agreed that neither political nor military action alone would be effective and that the issue of the agreed statement would depend on clear evidence of action by the security forces to restore order.

Mr Faulkner emphasised that "time was running out". The agreed statement confirmed the Executive's support for Sunningdale but stressed that further developments must depend on a "steady growth of mutual confidence within Northern Ireland and the two parts of Ireland".

It was agreed that the statement should be issued only after evidence of action on the security front by the secretary of state, Merlyn Rees, who should be asked to set up a committee of ministers to co-ordinate the civil and security strands.

This meeting followed a morning in which a back-to-work march in Belfast, led by the TUC general secretary, Len Murray, had attracted only 200 people.