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‘For a few weeks, the reliable machinery of suburban life shut down. There was no milk, no petrol, often no electricity’

During the dramatic two-week Ulster Workers’ Council strike in 1974, there was a sense of societal collapse

Few would disagree that during the Troubles in Northern Ireland the middle-class suburbs of south Belfast were among those areas least affected. All this is relative. People from that leafy locale were murdered. They had their workplaces destroyed. It was not unheard of (though pretty rare) to see a soldier’s rifle poking from a gateway when walking home from school.

But home life carried on pretty much as it had before the convulsions of 1969. The good burghers of the Malone Road savoured complacent stability over all else. Variations on “Ian Paisley and Bernadette Devlin are as bad as each other” echoed across boxy hedges as the spring of 1974 submitted to what passes for balmy weather in the North. Sugar Baby Love by the Rubettes replaced ABBA’s Waterloo at number one. Alias Smith and Jones was on the telly.

Then something deeply odd happened. For a few weeks – it seemed like months if, like me, you were 10 – the hitherto reliable machinery of suburban life shut down. There was no milk. There was little petrol. There was often no electricity.

Fifty years later those who lived through the Ulster Workers’ Council Strike, mounted in resistance to the Sunningdale Agreement, remember it as a defining event in the history of the Troubles. It could hardly have seemed more significant at the time. Brian Faulkner, then chief executive of the mayfly Northern Ireland executive, used positively apocalyptic language. “The issue was now not whether the Sunningdale agreement would or would not survive,” he said. “The outcome which the Protestant extremists sought was without question an independent neo-fascist Northern Ireland.”

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Imagine if such an insurrection had occurred in Birmingham. Or in Galway. “Was it a bit like this in the drawingrooms of St Petersburg in October 1917?” historian and co-presenter of The Rest Is History podcast Dominic Sandbrook, in his book Seasons in the Sun, Britain 1974-79 quotes a Belfast lawyer as remarking.

Yet the events occupy only a shadowy place in contemporary understanding of the period. Dr Gordon Gillespie, attached to the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast, has written at length on the dispute and on its consequences. “It was a bookmark at the end of that main part of the Troubles from 1971 to about 1975″ he tells me. “A bit more than half of everybody who was killed in the whole course of the Troubles was killed between August 71 and 1976.”

The strike began on May 15th, 1974. Murmurings had been growing since the signing of the Sunningdale Agreement – thrashed out between local parties and British and Irish governmental representatives – on December 9th of the previous year. The ink was barely dry before the Ulster Workers’ Council and so-called Ulster Army Council – incorporating the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) – formed themselves in opposition to, among other supposed outrages, the sharing of power with nationalists and the establishment of the Council of Ireland.

“That’s the thing that seemed to be the biggest threat to Northern Ireland’s position within the UK,” Gillespie says of that cross-border body. “Unionists are looking at this as a big move towards the United Ireland and it’s going to happen in the next couple of years. And then there are things the SDLP was saying.” He mentions that party’s Hugh Logue telling an audience at Trinity College Dublin that the council “would trundle unionists into a united Ireland”. One can hardly imagine a more vigorous poke to the loyalist underbelly.

By the beginning of May plans were under way for a strike. The day before the stoppage the Ulster Army Council laid out its objective in chilling terms. “If Westminster is not prepared to restore democracy, ie the will of the people made clear in an election, then the only other way it can be restored is in a coup d’état,” a statement read.

‘Britain was just coming out of the three-day week and of its own period of rolling blackouts. The sense of societal collapse was everywhere in 1974′

Electricity supply was immediately affected. The shipyard workers went out. Paramilitaries from the UDA lumbered around loyalist areas threatening anyone who dared go to work. The port of Larne was sealed off. Roadblocks were set up. An abiding image, drawn from TV news, is of the improvised uniform worn by those lurking with baseball bats on central reservations: dark glasses, scarves over mouths and – most important – those now-Proustian parkas with furred hoods. A friend from West Belfast remembers getting milk from a churn that someone on his estate had received from a farm. “We queued up with pots and the person filled them up,” he says.

A mile or two east my mother and I were among thousands improvising with camping stoves and candles. Blackouts were erratic and frustrating. You would be happily watching The Wombles when, just as Orinoco was discovering a particularly interesting tin can, the lights would fail and you’d be plunged back into the Bronze Age. BBC Radio 1 provided connection to a neighbouring country that had recently been experiencing similar inconveniences: Britain was just coming out of the three-day week and of its own period of rolling blackouts. The sense of societal collapse was everywhere in 1974.

Meanwhile, my mother, a theatre nurse at Musgrave Park Hospital (my father died in the 1960s), had to contend with a sudden and dramatic shortage of petrol. “One of the specific things that was quite interesting was that the hospital supplied us with enough petrol to get to work,” she tells me. “There was a pump in the grounds and those working there could fill up their cars. You had to pay for it. But you could get that petrol.”

There was, however, just enough for her to drive to work – dropping me off at school along the way – and then motor back home in the evening. A lady across the road gave us a sit-up-and-beg bicycle that my mum used for shopping and trips to see friends. Decades later that bike, of the robust school that used to carry elderly ladies to evensong, still sat in our house as a souvenir of peculiar times. It would be dishonest to pretend to any great deprivation. If you shut your eyes to the television news you could imagine it all as a great adventure.

I would guess it was different away from the leafy Malone Road. Gordon Gillespie, raised in working-class East Belfast, agrees, but adds a resigned addendum.

‘Many may now be puzzled at the authorities’ inability to regain the levers of power’

“It didn’t really affect me because where I was would have been heartland UDA territory at that time anyway,” he says. “We were used to having barricades going up and down all the time. Where we lived, at the bottom of Dee Street, a loyalist barrier had been cemented into the road. So it was just part of your life.”

Though the strike itself made little impact south of the Border one connected atrocity did have lasting resonance. On May 17th, Eamonn Mallie, later a distinguished journalist, was in the last term of his studies at Trinity College Dublin as three bombs exploded in that city and a fourth detonated in Monaghan. “The bombs had been planted by loyalists, who had pledged to topple the powersharing executive,” Mallie, from South Armagh, explains in his book Eyewitness To War And Peace. “During the two-week Ulster Workers’ Council strike…loyalists killed 39 civilians, of whom 33 died in Dublin and Monaghan. Little did I know back then that I would go on to spend the next 20 years at the coalface in Northern Ireland.”

Many may now be puzzled at the authorities’ inability to regain the levers of power. Within days the strikers had essentially taken over governance. They introduced a petrol rationing scheme. Passes were issued to those allowed to work. Faulkner’s talk of an “independent neo-fascist Northern Ireland” may have been overheated but the Workers’ Council was unrolling the paraphernalia of a provisional government. All this with a significant British army presence on the ground. Why were they not sent in?

“Armies as we well know are not designed to act as policemen,” Gillespie says. “There’s always that danger, as was seen with Bloody Sunday, that things can go disastrously wrong. I think that that was an element in the British thinking. ‘If we get into a confrontation with the Prods here we’re going to end up with a war on two fronts’.”

At any rate it took no time for the authorities to realise that the agreement was dead and that the Northern Ireland executive, established at the beginning of that year, was on the point of disintegration. The strikers won. It took another 24 years for the parties, on a famous Good Friday, to sign the deal the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon described as “Sunningdale for slow learners”.

The demography of the Malone Road changed. Back then the area’s MP, Robert Bradford – later murdered by the IRA – was an associate of the hardline Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party. Now the area is represented by the SDLP’s (if she’ll forgive me) notably unthreatening Claire Hanna. But the place looks much the same – as leafy, as Victorian, as golfer friendly – as it did 50 years ago. Or 50 years before that. And on back to when the Tudor wasn’t mock.