Determined planning to defeat Paisley

Papers show the differences between the 1977 loyalist stoppage and that of 1974, writes Eamon Phoenix.

Papers show the differences between the 1977 loyalist stoppage and that of 1974, writes Eamon Phoenix.

The 1977 strike of the United Unionist Action Council (UUAC), led by the Rev Ian Paisley and supported by the UDA and Ulster Workers' Council, features heavily in this year's release in Belfast.

The documents reveal the determination of the British military to seize power stations, if necessary, and a top-level Stormont assessment that the stoppage failed largely because the UUAC "had no single, clear objective to unite the various shades of unionist opinion", in contrast to the UWC stoppage of 1974.

The strike began on May 2nd, 1977. Dr Paisley and his political ally Ernest Baird protested against an alleged lack of security and demanded a return to unionist majority-rule government at Stormont.


The two leaders issued an ultimatum to the secretary of state, Roy Mason, giving him seven days to meet their demands.

Sunday, May 1st

On the eve of the strike, the secretary of state received a secret military assessment of the situation by Lt Col PB Evans. Evans observed that a strike was being "threatened . . . for political ends by extreme right-wing elements of the Protestant loyalist faction in Northern Ireland". He added: "The leaders of strike action have manoeuvred themselves into a situation in which they dare not back down in case they lose political credence in the future."

There was little chance of a negotiated settlement, leaving the military with only two options - "to intervene or not to intervene". Evans concluded: "The government has stated that it will not allow essential services to come to a halt." It was his view that the British army should seize oil refineries and key installations at dawn on May 5th, 1977.

Monday, May 2nd

The stoppage began.

Wednesday, May 4th

Two days into the stoppage, the situation was clearly deteriorating. A memo by Stormont official AA Pritchard to ministers and officials reported on a meeting between civil servants and the Oil Industry Emergency Committee. This revealed that at some depots no supplies of fuel were being moved with the result that only about 5 per cent of the normal outflow in the North was being achieved. At the same time, the Belfast tanker drivers were concerned with intimidation.

A liaison committee of shop stewards from the various oil companies had been set up and was in touch with the UUAC Strike Committee. The memo sounded a note of caution: "The oil company representatives considered that the present situation could not continue much longer. They needed guidance from the government. They could act, as in 1974, seeking UUAC approval for their activities." However, this would reproduce the situation wherein the strike committee appeared to be rationing supplies and "acting in lieu of government". In such circumstances, supplies to essential users would quickly run down.

It was agreed by key officials that if the tanker drivers refused to work, it would be necessary to use specialist troops to maintain essential supplies.

The ongoing crisis was also discussed at a meeting of permanent secretaries at Stormont Castle. Officials learned that it was still uncertain whether the key power workers at Ballylumford (in east Antrim) would come out in support of the strike.

Things remained "delicate" but the secretary of state, Roy Mason, was unwilling to accept the situation where the tanker drivers accepted their orders from the UUAC rather than from their management. Such action on the drivers' part would, in Mason's judgment, be sufficient cause for him to proclaim an emergency.

An official, Mr Palmer, reported that the government's Oil Contingency Plan was very basic, enabling only a quarter of normal petrol supplies to be delivered. Officials expressed concern at the implications for worker turnout if the plan was put into effect. Another official Ewart Bell felt that the secretary of state should seek direct contact with key workers who threatened strike action to warn them of the consequences of their action.

Summing up, an official RH Kidd told the meeting that the three major problems facing the government were electricity, fuel and intimidation. "Day One of the strike had probably been a 'bad' day from the government's viewpoint, but Day Two had been much more encouraging."

Thursday, May 5th

At a further meeting of key officials at Stormont Castle, Kidd reported on a general and continuing improvement in attendance at work. The Ballylumford power workers had seen the UUAC and were now meeting the secretary of state. The signs were reasonably hopeful that there might be an early end to the stoppage.

Ken (later Sir) Bloomfield reported that British Rail (then owner of Sealink) had seriously considered re-running ships into Larne port but had been deterred because there were no visible signs of security in the town. "The workforce there might still be prepared to brave the pickets if they were confident that the security forces would back them up."

On the issue of social security payments to strikers, Norman Dugdale of the department of health and social services said that local officers were asking claimants "some fairly pointed questions" about their reasons for claiming supplementary benefit. His department would be maintaining a hard line. It seemed there would be an additional 10,000 new claims compared with 200,000 during the 1974 UWC Strike.

The point was made that it would be prudent not to be over-sanguine about an early ending to the stoppage. Intimidation was still widespread and the UUAC and their supporters were likely to increase activities over the weekend. "There was no doubt that many in the community were opposed to the strike because of the methods used rather than the aims behind it. In general, people placed more importance on a tightening of security rather than on the implementation of the Convention Report . . ."

The problem of keeping the ports open concerned ministers and officials. British Rail was now considering using ports in the Republic. Such a development would have "political implications" in Northern Ireland and British Rail should be advised to that effect.

Monday, May 9th

At their next meeting, officials reported indications that support for the strike was dwindling. Tensions were now evident between strikers and non-strikers. Dr Jack of the department of agriculture reported that farmers used tractor demonstrations to voice concern about security.

Tuesday, May 10th

The meeting was dominated by the UDA murder of a bus driver, Harry Bradshaw, in north Belfast. In response, a 24-hour bus strike had been called in the city. Officials noted that signs of improvement in the electricity situation were counterbalanced by the continued closure of Larne port. Permanent secretaries expressed concern at roadblocks and the apparent slowness in clearing them. Ballymoney had been sealed off. Dr Paisley was expected to address a crowd there shortly. "There were perhaps signs that the strike was beginning to toe in on the 'Paisley heartlands' while the main economic and industrial life of Northern Ireland continued normally." Roy Mason, contrary to normal practice, remained at Stormont Castle to oversee the emergency instead of attending the weekly cabinet meeting in Downing Street.

Wednesday May 11th

Contingency planning for the military distribution of fuel was drawn up. Dr Quigley reported the Northern Ireland Electricity Service was hopeful that the Ballylumford power workers would report as usual, though anything could go wrong at any time. Dr Paisley was due to visit the Coolkeeragh power station, near Derry, shortly but instructions had been issued by NIES that he was not to be given access nor was management to negotiate with him.

On the murder of the Citybus driver in Belfast, another official, W Slinger, wondered if public revulsion could be turned to advantage by personifying Bradshaw not only as a murdered bus driver but as a representative of every worker who had asserted their right to work by ignoring the UUAC strike call.

Bloomfield agreed that it would be desirable to enable the public to underline their feelings about the murder of a worker in the normal execution of his duty by dramatising the situation in some way.

Thursday, May 12th

The situation had improved sufficiently for the secretary of state's security meeting to decide that its Stormont Castle operations room could be scaled down. For his part, Roy Mason announced that he would be taking the salute at a passing-out parade of the Royal Irish Rangers at St Patrick's Barracks, Ballymena, on the following day.

It was understood that "Paisley is threatening a protest demonstration outside the barracks".

Friday, May 13th

Strike over. A final meeting of the Stormont Castle committee was held as the strike petered out. The meeting noted that the crisis at Ballylumford had passed. Officials agreed that the recent successes on the economic front had helped the government's cause during the strike.

The permanent undersecretary Brian Cubbon hoped that the social and economic impetus could be continued in the wake of the stoppage.

In summary, officials considered that "the major reason [for the failure of the strike] was probably the fact that, unlike the 1974 UWC strike, the UUAC had no single clear objective to unite the various shades of unionist opinion". Another important factor was the contrast in the economic backgrounds between 1974 and 1977. Men were afraid of losing their jobs, a fact highlighted by recent industrial closures. Inflation had also taken its toll; women were not able to lay in supplies as they had in 1974.

The sustained support given to the community by the security forces and the united approach of the government to the strike were critical factors. The government could not afford, however, to be complacent.

"There was a borderline section of the unionist community who might have been swayed either way in the strike." It was also essential that moves on the political front did not proceed too far ahead of events on the security front, or else the government might not be able to counter a repeat performance by the strikers.


A final note recalls the text of a personal message from James Callaghan to Roy Mason on May 17th, 1977: "You have displayed courage and firmness against these dangerous men, and by your successful appeal to the good sense and loyalty of the people of Ulster you have achieved a signal victory over those whose unconstitutional actions would have destroyed the economic recovery you have done so much to promote."