The late Glen Barr, who will be buried today, will principally be remembered for the central role he played in the Ulster Workers’ Council strike that sounded the death knell for the proto-powersharing Sunningdale Agreement of the mid 1970s.
Mr. Barr, a member of the, at the time still-legal Ulster Defence Association (UDA), was Chair of the UWC Coordinating Committee during the mass loyalist mobilisation against Sunningdale that brought the North to a standstill in May 1974.
The Waterside-native was running the strike from Bill Craig’s Vanguard Unionist Party (VUP) headquarters in East Belfast when, on the morning of May 22, 1974, at the height of the stoppage a riot erupted on Bond’s Hill when nationalists were prevented from getting to their places of work in the Maydown Industrial Estate. The British Army fired several rounds of rubber bullets at 150 workers as they tried to pass a loyalist roadblock, which had been set up following the hijacking of three buses.
Derry was hit by power shortages, fuel depot closures and bread shortages, and production at several industrial plants in the city, including DuPont and the Londonderry Gaslight company, was shut down.
The strikers, led by Mr. Barr, 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. At a rally in Irish Street in June 1974 Mr. Barr, reflecting on what was the pinnacle of his career at that point, evinced an atypical loyalism, strongly Ulster nationalist in character, which did not rule out a break with Britain if that was in the best interests of the North.
“If another Sunningdale was the price of unity with Britain it was too great,” he told a Waterside crowd.
“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.
“If we fail in this, it is the end of the province.
“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.”
Mr. Barr, who had been elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly of 1973 as a VUP member for Derry, went on to successfully contest fresh elections to the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention (NICC), which sat for the first time in 1975. Throughout his political career he was distrusted by sections of mainstream unionism for his perceived left-wing and Ulster nationalist positions, and by the nationalist and republican community for his affiliation with loyalist paramilitaries, who continued their campaigns of assassination and murder throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He travelled to Libya as part of a three man UDA delegation to meet members of the Muammar Gaddafi Government, who, it was speculated, was considering bankrolling a breakaway independent Ulster. And such was his prominence that he featured in a series of fascinating US diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks in 2013. which give an insight into his radical thinking in the 1970s.
One cable noted his opposition to the potential candidacy of the Conservative Enoch Powell in elections in the North, for example.
“He is lukewarm at most about unionist adoption Enoch Powell as candidate for parliament. Barr believes that several Ulster residents equally if not better qualified than Powell and Barr distrusts Powell attitudes on trade-unions and working class,” was the assessment of one US diplomat.
Others also referred to Mr. Barr’s left-wing leanings, describing him as a “self-professed socialist” whom “some Protestants...consider to be a communist,” as well as to his Ulster nationalism, noting that on his North African trip: “He did explore Libyan willingness help finance Ulster should it become independent entity. Barr said reaction positive.”
Another noted: “Barr being charged with splitting United Ulster Unionist Council, which heretofore supported by Protestant para-military organisations. Unnamed individuals cited by press as calling for inquiry into communist penetration of UDA.” The same official noted his Ulster nationalist tendencies, stating: “One strong point of appeal is Barr’s insistence that he will talk to anyone anywhere about future Ulster. This sets him and presumably the UDA apart from loyalists who refusing meet other politicians except in form elected representations.”
He later championed community development and peace-building, working with former Fine Gael TD, Paddy Harte, to establish the International School for Peace Studies. A monument to the 16th Irish Division and 36th Ulster Division who fought side by side during WWI, unveiled in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II, Irish President Mary McAleese, and King Albert of Belgium in 1998, was his brainchild. As Chief Executive of the Maydown Ebrington Group he worked tirelessly to develop his beloved Waterside and was a key supporter of the Waterside Theatre and other users of the Maydown Ebrington Centre.