Labor Strikes

The conflict in Northern Ireland originated with the creation of an apartheid-like government in which Protestants were considered superior to Catholics and were given enhanced social and economic status, in addition to more social liberties.1 However, this Protestant rule has gradually diminished due to the internal Catholics' demands and external pressure from England both of which insisted upon the creation of a more autonomous and democratic government. In response to these threats, the Unionists formed a variety of paramilitary, grassroots, and political groups dedicated to maintaining the nation’s status quo. Although these organizations are famous for their numerous terrorist attacks and brutal murders of Catholics, they have in fact engaged in several semi-peaceful labor strikes. The most famous of these were the 1972 Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party (VUPP) Strike, the 1974 Ulster Worker’s Council (UWC) Strike, and the United Unionist Action Council (UUAC) Strike which occurred in 1977.2

On March 22, 1972 Northern Ireland’s Protestant community was traumatized to learn of the United Kingdom's Prime Minister Heath's proclamation that the internment in Northern Ireland would cease. He informed Stormont that the Northern Ireland government would begin dividing political power between the Unionists and the Nationalists, and that if these events failed to take place the country would then be under direct rule from Britain. In response to this horrifying announcement, the Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party (VUPP) held a two day labor strike. The VUPP persuaded approximately 200,000 workers to abstain from working and organized a 100,000 member rally at the heart Northern Ireland’s Parliamentary in Stormont. The protest had a momentous impact on the country due to the sudden halt in industries, comers, and the two-thirds drop in the national power supply. However, Prime Minister Heath eventually triumphed on Mach 28; he ended the one party Protestant government and began working to fashion a coalition government.3

Less than one year after the VUPP Strike, the most successful labor strike ever attempted by Loyalists occurred. In 1973, the British government issued a white paper entitled “Northern Ireland Constitution Proposals”. This document removed the majority rule in Northern Ireland and proposed a power sharing arrangement enacted via an eight member, proportionately elected Assembly and an Executive Committee with guaranteed Catholic representation. It went on to endorse increased civil rights for Catholics in voting, local government, jobs, housing, and education. Lastly, a bridge to peaceful Irish unity, achieved through public consent and good faith negation, was to be undertaken.4 This eventually resulted in the adoption of the Sunningdale Agreement, which established the Council of Ireland, a governmental system in which Unionists and Nationalists possessed exactly the same amount of political power.5

Not surprisingly, the Unionists were outraged at this governmental alteration. A strike slowly began to emerge when the unheard-of Ulster Workers Council (UWC), a compilation of trade Unionists and Protestant industrial workers, declared a labor strike in May 1974. No big named organizations or politicians endorsed them. This all changed when the Ulster Defense Association (UDA) took charge and began orchestrating mass demonstrations. They convinced and coerced workers to strike from jobs, created road blocks, and dispatched masked men to shutdown factories.6 By the first day, the port of Larne was sealed off and entry into Belfast was blocked off. Within days, Northern Ireland experienced severe shortages of food, electricity, and basic necessities.7 Unlike the previous VUPP Strike, the UWC strike was successful after two weeks of protesting. The Catholic factions in the government, SDLP, agreed to suspend the Council of Ireland and most importantly, the power sharing agreement was destroyed when Chief Executive, Faulkner resigned to protest with the strikers.8 This strike served to set an example (hoped for achievement) for future strikers.

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Motivated by the success of the UWC Strikes, the United Ulster Action Council (UUAC) launched what came to be known as the Second Ulster Workers Strike in 1977. The goal of the demonstration was to convince the United Kingdom that Northern Ireland should return to one party majority political system dominated by the Protestants. Unlike the previous strike, this one ended in failure. From the beginning, the UUAC was only able to enlist the aid of some of the more prominent Loyalists organizations due to a wide variation in support among Protestants. Once the strike began on May 2, it beset by internal multiple logistical failures. The British Army stepped in and prevented the strikers from construct roadblocks. Workers at the Ballylumford power station refused to go on strike because the leaders lacked widespread support. The power workers continued to supply electricity and only a few areas lost power due to loyalists who set off explosive devices. Furthermore, paramilitary groups, such as the UDA, refused to intimidate workers which resulted in factories, shipyards, and ferries remaining open. The protest eventually collapsed and was called off on May 12, following the accidental killing of four Protestants by the more violent wing of the UDA.10 The UUAC strike is a prime example of violence interfering with the non-violent approaches hoped for achievements This also demonstrates the positive impact on participants through direct effects in three ways: increasing fearlessness effects on crime and violence, and increased group unity.** UUAC's stike was unsuccessful because many of the workers and the British army had learned from the UWC stike how to prevent the same problems from occuring. They had an increased fearlessness where workers and power stations could remain firm in the face of threats by the strikers. Also the individual workers who refused to participate in the strike and British army members who stopped the road blocks from occuring had a direct effect on shutting down the crime and violence that may have occured. According to Mcnair, this clarifies that humans are not by nature violently agressive. Lastly, it increased group unity by the supporters who wished to end the strike shutting the operation down very quickly.11

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