Fifty years ago Derry was plunged into darkness by loyalist Ulster Workers’ Council strike

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Fifty years ago Derry was plunged into darkness when loyalists shut down Coolkeeragh during the Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC) strike, which began on May 15, 1974.

The strike was an attempt by a coalition of unionist politicians and loyalist paramilitaries to bring the North to a standstill in protest at the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement.

Several key personalities from Derry were crucially involved in events.

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These included the late Derry loyalist Glen Barr, Chair of the UWC Coordinating Committee, which ran the strike from the Vanguard Unionist Party (VUP) headquarters in East Belfast, and the late John Hume, who as Minister of Commerce at the time, had the headache of trying to keep industry going against a back drop of power cuts, supply shortages and pickets.

British soldiers at a fuel depot on the Bay Road during the Ulster Workers' Council strike in May 1974.British soldiers at a fuel depot on the Bay Road during the Ulster Workers' Council strike in May 1974.
British soldiers at a fuel depot on the Bay Road during the Ulster Workers' Council strike in May 1974.

Killaloo native, Ivan Cooper, had the unenviable brief of Community Relations at a time of near unbearable community tensions.

The shutdown started on May 15 and this paper reported how Derry was ‘badly hit by power cuts’ on its front page on Friday, May 17.

"Industrial, commercial and domestic life in Derry has been hit by the strike by loyalist workers at power stations throughout the North.

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“And the situation further deteriorated yesterday afternoon when it was announced that all operations at Coolkeeragh power station had ceased,” the ‘Journal’ informed its readers.

Sinn Féin members providing hot food for the elderly in Rosemount during the Ulster Workers' Council strike in May 1974.Sinn Féin members providing hot food for the elderly in Rosemount during the Ulster Workers' Council strike in May 1974.
Sinn Féin members providing hot food for the elderly in Rosemount during the Ulster Workers' Council strike in May 1974.
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Veteran Derry loyalist Glen Barr has passed away

A Northern Ireland Electricity Services spokesperson told the paper operations had had to cease after workers decided to stop work and that ‘most areas of Derry have been blacked-out on a rota basis, lasting from two to four hours’.

The paper added: "The strike call was made by the UWC after a vote of confidence on the Sunningdale Agreement had been passed in the Assembly.

"The UWC had called a general strike and the loyalist power workers were among the few groups of workers which answered the call. Many people turned up for work as usual only to find that they had no electricity."

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Barbed wire and British soldiers at a petrol station on the Strand Road during the Ulster Workers' Council strike in May 1974.Barbed wire and British soldiers at a petrol station on the Strand Road during the Ulster Workers' Council strike in May 1974.
Barbed wire and British soldiers at a petrol station on the Strand Road during the Ulster Workers' Council strike in May 1974.

Havoc was sown across a range of industries and services. DuPont said the situation was 'very difficult' and factories at Pennyburn and Maydown had to send workers home.

The Milanda bakery warned of the potential for serious bread shortages and there were fears milk deliveries would dry up.

Altnagelvin had to be put on an emergency generator and the first domestic outages occurred on the first afternoon of the strike.

"Many people were unable to cook meals because electric ovens were put out of action. On Wednesday night many area of the city were in total darkness."

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A British soldier at a petrol station on the Strand Road during the Ulster Workers' Council strike in May 1974.A British soldier at a petrol station on the Strand Road during the Ulster Workers' Council strike in May 1974.
A British soldier at a petrol station on the Strand Road during the Ulster Workers' Council strike in May 1974.

The 'Journal' was not immune. The paper was forced to omit some advertisements and news reports due to the power cuts.

Some loyalist sympathisers took to the streets in pro-UWC pickets.

"A police spokesman in Derry reported that a crowd of about eighty women and children carrying anti-Sunningdale placards and Vanguard flags protested at the junction of Ardmore Road and the Dungiven Road for about half an hour around eight o'clock on Wednesday night," the 'Journal' observed.

Mr. Barr, a leading Ulster Defence Association (UDA) member, was Chair of the UWC Coordinating Committee during the mass loyalist mobilisation against Sunningdale.

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The Waterside-native was running the strike from Bill Craig’s VUP HQ in East Belfast.

Glen Barr addressing a rally in Irish Street.Glen Barr addressing a rally in Irish Street.
Glen Barr addressing a rally in Irish Street.

Two days after the mass action started the ‘Journal’ was scathing of Mr. Craig and his fellow-travellers in an editorial entitled ‘The political bullyboys’.

The paper declared: “He is out to use the strike action declared by a branch of the militant allies of 'the loyalist coalition' to which he belongs, an action backed by the UDA and UVF extremists to blackmail the British Government.

“The weapon borne by those extremists to enforce the strike, namely the cudgel, is a significant choice. 'The IRA do not use democratic methods and neither do we,' declares the spokesman. His statement speaks volumes.

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"The last time the 'loyalists' took similar strike action, at the instance of Billy Hull's [Belfast UDA and Vanguard founder] outfit, it resulted in bloodshed, bombing, shooting, rioting and looting in East Belfast, and in sacrilege as well, until it was squelched by military action."

The editorial blasted the strikers for intimidating workers and attempting to divide the trade union movement along sectarian lines.

On Tuesday, May 21, the exact-midway point of the strike, the ‘Journal’ reported how the power cuts had been stepped up.

“Derry industry and the private lives of citizens were again badly affected by the power strike yesterday but there was no evidence of any positive support for the strike in the Derry area,” the paper stated.

Workers mostly turned up for work but had to be sent home.

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Exactly a week after the strike commenced a mini-riot erupted on Bond’s Hill when workers from the Cityside tried to cross a loyalist roadblock on their way to work in Maydown.

When workers arrived at Bond’s Hill at around 7.45am on the morning of Wednesday, May 22, 1974, they found it had been blocked by a lorry, whilst workers coming off the night shift had earlier found Dale’s Corner blocked by two buses.

According to a British Army spokesperson a group of around 150 workers started making its way up Bond’s Hill towards the road block and four rubber bullets were fired at them by British soldiers.

According to a report in the ‘Sentinel’: “Three buses were hijacked in Londonderry yesterday morning for about an hour, were used to block Bond’s Hill, in Waterside, one of the main routes for traffic for Limavady, Coleraine and Belfast.

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“Another bus was used to block the Trench Road - Warbleshinney Road Junction on the outskirts of the city.”

SDLP Assemblyman Michael Canavan complained to the Secretary of State, Merlyn Rees about the ‘use of the army to support those who are flouting the British Government’.

Production was stopped at four plants at DuPont because of issues with a rota system and the non-delivery of distillate to the Londonderry Gaslight Company meant production had to cease on Thursday 23, 1974.

Many factories had to suspend operations but other businesses, shops and cafes traded without lights or used candles.

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The distillate shortage resulted in a proposal by members of the Bogside Community Association (BCA) - including Eamonn Deane and Fr. Denis Bradley - to drive a 5,000 gallon tanker to Dublin, fill it and return to the city.

Liam Cosgrave’s Fine Gael government was favourable to the proposal but Esso and Shell baulked at the prospect of risking fuel that would have to pass loyalist pickets.

Back in Derry the British Army was sent into fuel depots and petrol stations to try to bring order to supply.

British troops came under fire from an unknown gunman firing from the Long Tower area, whilst escorting distillate to the gasyard on the Lecky Road.

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The strike caused considerable disharmony at local government level. Seven members of the nine-strong United Loyalist Group (ULG) walked out of a monthly Council meeting in support of the strike.

The delegation stated: “We wish to add our voice to that of the UWC in that Sunningdale and, in particular, the Council of Ireland, be scrapped. As a further step we would call upon Mr Harold Wilson [the British Labour Prime Minister] to sack Mr Rees for his stupid bungling of the NI situation.”

The Executive headed by Brian Faulkner [Ulster Unionist Party leader] eventually collapsed after Mr. Rees refused to negotiate with members of the UWC. The strike ended on May 28.

The strikers, led by Mr. Barr, had won out, and Sunningdale, which had proposed power-sharing between nationalists and unionists at Stormont, and a greater say for Dublin in the affairs of the North, collapsed.

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Mr. Barr, who had been elected to the NI Assembly of 1973 as a VUP member for Derry, went on to successfully contest fresh elections to the NI Constitutional Convention (NICC), which sat for the first time in 1975.

A month after the strike Mr. Craig attended a Vanguard rally in Irish Street where he told supporters that if Westminster couldn’t form an Executive it was their duty to govern the North like any other part of the UK.

Mr. Barr told the crowd that ‘if another Sunningdale was the price of unity with Britain it was too great’.

The rally was attended by a large crowd, which had followed a band parade from Emerson Street in the Bond’s Street area.

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With the future of Government still in limbo, Mr. Barr stated: “We are in a political ball game. The UWC and the paramilitary organisations have done something everyone in the past five years failed to do.”

He said the battle wasn’t over, and stated: “If we fail in this, it is the end of the province.”

He also said: “We have in the past, been led blindly by politicians, who have not had our cause and interests at heart. If we lose, the Protestant faith throughout the world will be lost. We seek to set a platform of unity and let us not be divided by men who seek to further their own power.”

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