1974, The Nearly Civil War.

The so-called Ulster Workers Council (UWC), a combined brotherhood of disorder, and their illegal-strike of May 1974, came 5 years after the 1969 sectarian Pogrom. A Pogrom that was the answer to the demand for equality, and when the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement was signed, that same mindset refused once more, the idea of equality.

Sunningdale was quite inventive as it involved a cross-community government. It also acknowledged that the Irish government had a part to play in bringing peace and stability to that corner of Ireland, known also as Northern Ireland.

Fact is, I believe the British government, since 1969, because of the embarrassment caused them by that sectarian Pogrom, were seeking various ways to be rid of their involvement there, and having the Free-state government share in the burden of that troublesome statelet, was seen as a means to eventually leave them to deal with their island as a whole, and those seen as troublesome.

That a a previous British government, having forced partition on the people of the island of Ireland in 1921, forming an artificial statelet in the North-east, and handing control of it to a sectarian brotherhood, who then created apartheid, making the native Irish Catholics, second class citizens, had to have been embarrassing when the worlds media began circulating the truth of the artificial statelet in the North east of the Island of Ireland. But, as my mate Darby once said to me… ‘If you think that people here, people within unionism, did not keep a lot of secrets involving important people from across the water, and Kincora would have been close to the top of any hush-files, then you need to reflect a little bit more on that.’

That’s how Darby was, a thinker, and always did it outside the box, and the boy I knew in my childhood, who went to Long Kesh as a teenager, was out, and then in again, was traumatised when none of us knew what the word meant. When he did eventually get out all the things relayed to him whilst inside concerning the corruption of republicanism, was stunned at what had evolved, and while he voiced a lot of dismay, was basically told to be a good boy, mind his own business and get on with his life, or it might end sooner than he thought. He didn’t go into all the details of his interrogation by people – Johnny come lately’s – but he did become very reclusive to the point he felt he should move.

Anyhow, the Sunningdale agreement for the first time in the history of Northern Ireland, included a nationalist party in a power-sharing executive, but that it also brought into existence ‘the Council of Ireland’ a British and Irish government committee concerned with cross-border security co-operation, caused convulsions with sectarian, small-minded people, who reacted angrily to what they saw as Fenian bastards being afforded a say in the affairs of a part of Ireland they saw was theirs. People who had enjoyed so much control in a sectarian apartheid state, where elections were always fixed to ensure majority rule and the status quo, and of course apartheid was a clever part of that. Yes, for those of you who don’t know, apartheid was invented in North east of Ireland, and existed there before it showed its ugly face in South Africa.

However, in 1974, what I will now refer to – as a sectarian-brotherhood – were aided in their goal to prevent power-sharing, when British army chiefs refused to obey British government orders, showing favouritism to that brotherhood, by propping up the UWC strike. Revealing to Catholics, that they were far from being impartial, and that strike not only shut down six-counties of a nine-county ancient Ulster in the North east of Ireland, but brought the power-sharing government to it’s knees, in what was a successful, political, chess move.

That strike was controlled by a council known as the UWC, a group made up of Unionist politicians, loyalist paramilitaries, and supporters, and many if not all; with their roots in the orange order. The leader of the paramilitary organisation, the UDA, Andy Tyrie, described the strike as a triumph of intimidation without violence. However that it involved police and army collusion, guaranteed its success.

In Belfast alone, approximately 860 UDA roadblocks were erected as the the RUC and British army looked on, sharing a few cigarettes and the odd joke, allowing the brotherhood of disorder to shut down the city that included visiting shops and small businesses with baseball bats, cudgels, hammers, and axes, to explain in person why they needed to shut up shop, and most did. That the RUC’s F division at Castlereagh received roughly 700 reports of intimidation from small business owners, didn’t matter, and on May 19th, 1974, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Merlyn Rees, declared a state of emergency giving him power to use troops to maintain essential supplies, but he never did.

Years later, it’s pretty clear, that the then British Labour government’s attempt to implement a power-sharing executive, didn’t have a chance, as senior British army officers mutinied, refusing to co-operate in any emergency power.

I lived in Divis Flats as a teenager, and remember that time very well, and Republicans were not only on ‘stand-by’ there, but were prepared for any event similar to the Pogrom of 1969. The Fianna, and local kids had began gathering a lot of firewood in late April towards the erection of makeshift ovens that were readied in just about every balcony, using those old bakers metal trays on top of breeze blocks, or bricks, to set pots upon, and while there were stairwells barricaded, some remained open as a matter of necessity, and were all monitored.

There was also a constant rumour floating around in April and May of 1974 regarding ‘a plan’ that involved help from the free-state government – should a civil war arise. There was a mention of Irish army camp preparations made for an exodus of refugees from the North to the South, similar to what had occurred in 1969 with the sectarian Pogrom, so there was a tense atmosphere of expectancy in the air. The planned UWC strike, was, many believed, a prelude to a civil war, and that was prepared for, and when word eventually arrived in Divis Flats, that the electric, gas, and water supplies, were going to be shut down, and food deliveries prevented from reaching Catholic ghettos, it basically confirmed the rumours, and the people of Divis Flats, like the other catholic ghettos, were prepared for anything and everything.

During that UWC strike period, the residents of Divis Flats baked their own bread and cooked their meals on the balconies. They had every necessity. Baths and pots, had been filled with drinking water, there was powdered milk, baby food, flour, eggs, tea, spuds, and a supply route established should anything dwindle, and when the milk urns arrived into Divis Flats during the second week of that strike, confirmed supply routes were operating. I was sixteen years old then, and the people of the flats, not only republicans, were ready for any escalation including a war that would have seen the british army siding with loyalists.

Three months after that strike a senior British officer boasted in the ultra-right wing, Monday Club, magazine … ‘For the first time, the army had decided that it was right and that it knew best, and the politicians had better tow the line.’
And a British army general quoted this in the Irish Times issue, May 15th, 1984, (10 years later)…
‘If you’d a decisive man who had arrested the strikers on the first day it would have created chaos and bought the province to the point of no return.’

I think that just about sums up the sort of veiled threats that senior members of the british army were stating to British government ministers then, and showed they backed the sectarian brotherhood, the strike, and wanted the power-sharing government to crash.

It also emerged years after; that in the wake of that 1974 Sectarian/Racist/Action, that the free-state government had made plans to protect Northern Irish Catholics, should a similar event – like that UWC Strike, ever again occur, and see ‘through discriminatory measures‘ – Catholics in the North denied essential food supplies, and another Pogrom by loyalists that would see a full-scale civil war arise from such Sectarian attacks. The free-state government co-operating with the Catholic Church, to prepare a doomsday plan, and obviously both of them were mindful of their failures in 1969, when they did nothing. Did the UWC strike in 1974, actually see them realise the true nature of sectarianism?

That free-state/catholic church plan, was to be triggered in the event of the British government, either being unable, or unwilling, to safeguard Northern Catholics, and according to secret Department of Foreign Affairs papers published since then, and revealed in an edition of the Magill magazine who obtained the confidential paper from Department of Foreign Affairs papers detailing that plan. The paper citing the plan was devised in the wake of the Ulster Workers Council (UWC) strike of May 1974. But, aside from a humanitarian motivation, the church also devised a rescue package ‘because it wanted to avoid the IRA assuming the leading role in such activity and taking the credit for it.’

I was unaware that there were many Catholic priests seemingly deputised to organise parishioners into safe areas, and to stockpile food and supplies so people could sustain themselves against any loyalist or other threat. Free State government officials even suggested moving Catholic families to strengthen further, already predominant Catholic areas, to make them easier to hold. The Magill Magazine also reported, that, ‘The only escape for the people in the Ligoniel area, that was bordered by the loyalist Ballysillan and Glencairn areas, would be to cross the mountains into west Belfast.

That Catholics in the Short Strand and the Markets areas would move towards the city centre and into west Belfast. But areas such as Willowfield and Castlereagh, which were 90 per cent Protestant, there would simply be no hope for those Catholics there – in that doomsday scenario, unless they successfully fled.’

Plans, it seem, were also laid out for Derry and the predominantly Protestant towns of Carrickfergus and Larne, where it was envisaged Catholics might be compelled to literally retire to the beaches,’ to await rescue by boat.

In one extract, a priest from the Down and Connor relief advisory service – warned that in a situation of civil strife, he would expect that the Catholics on the Finaghy side of the M1 motorway, and the relief centre, would be attacked, and either killed, or forced to flee.’ He also expected that Twinbrook estate would link up with Lenadoon, Andersonstown, and Ladybrook, to push the Protestants in Suffolk and Dunmurry out – in order to obtain control of all the area west of the MI.’

That the Catholic church and the Free State government even comprehended this, seems to have been lost on many people, and certainly republicans since this knowledge has surfaced. However, the rumours back then, the preparations involved in shutting down Divis Flats alone, were not for nothing, and said much more, and to this day – like a few of my old friends, have my suspicions, that there was a similar plan in place prior to the UWC strike. And when I think more and more back to then, it certainly makes so much more sense today, because during the organisation of the area towards defending it and the residents, the atmosphere on the ground was certainly serious and edgy, and could be saw in those senior republicans.

Was there was a plan in place that was shared with a chosen few in order to avoid mass fear in the communities, and in order to continue the preparations without distractions from within the area(s)?

Fact is, those stairwells in Divis Flats that were blocked off prior to the UWC strike, were only removed in an operation by the British army, in the days after that strike was over, and its aims accomplished, and of course there were arrests in Divis Flats.

I’d just like to add that Divis Flats during that time, took on a whole different atmosphere at night time, going into the wee small hours. I saw mothers and grandmothers sitting at their doors having a good oul yarn, telling ghost stories, and all eager to ensure a good fry-up was available or a sandwich if needed for those who needed it. Divis Flats always had a great community spirit, and most of them hailed from the old Pound Loney. They were a good people. They were my people.

JS Larkin

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