UWC Strike

Harold Wilson, 25/05/1974

Category: Labour Politics (General), Trade Unions

As this holiday weekend begins, Northern Ireland faces the gravest crisis in her history. It is a crisis equally for all of us who live on this side of the water. What we are seeing in Northern Ireland is not just an industrial strike. It has nothing to do with wages. It has nothing to do with jobs-except to imperil jobs. It is a deliberate and calculated attempt to use every undemocratic and unparliamentary means for the purpose of bringing down the whole constitution of Northern Ireland so as to set up there a sectarian and undemocratic state, from which one third of the people of Northern Ireland will be excluded. This is not - this has not been at any time over these past few difficult years - a party matter in the House of Commons or in this country at all. Where the political wildcats of Northern Ireland seek to divide and embitter, all the major parties in Britain have sought to heal and to unite. In the years before 1970 the then Conservative opposition supported the action the Labour Government took when we put the troops in, in a security role, and issued the Downing Street Declaration which gave the most specific guarantees to the people of Northern Ireland about their right to determine their own future. When Labour was in opposition we supported Mr Heath, Mr Whitelaw and later Mr Francis Pym, first when they suspended the old one-sided Stormont parliamentary system which had broken down, then when they devised a new constitution aimed at reconciliation and shared power in Northern Ireland and again in the initiatives they took to secure better relations between Ulster and the Irish Republic. On few constitutional issues in our history have we seen the full government party and the full opposition party voting together for such measures and carrying them with overwhelming majorities. Agreement was reached by the Northern Ireland Executive in the last few days on arrangements for a new and constructive relationship between North and South. It provides additional reassurance to those in the North who still feared that their way of life would give way to a new all-Ireland system threatening their religious and political beliefs. There is nothing to fear here and they know it.
What has been achieved in Northern Ireland these last two years provides hope for its future. We are not going to see that set aside by thugs and bullies behaving as they did at Ballymena last night. We have made clear as a government, and we speak for the overwhelming majority of the House of Commons so recently elected, that we will not negotiate on constitutional or political matters in Northern Ireland with anyone who chooses to operate outside the established constitutional framework, with non-elected, self-appointed people who are systematically breaking the law and intimidating the people of Northern Ireland-their fellow citizens and our fellow citizens within the United Kingdom.


We stand by, as our predecessors stood by - and still stand by the decision taken last year that the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive provide the only basis for peace, the only basis for order and good government in Northern Ireland. Today the law is being set aside. British troops are being hampered in tasks which were already daunting and unprecedented within a nation supposed to be enjoying the benefits of peace. Those who are now challenging constitutional authority are denying the fundamental right of every man and woman the right to work. They have decided, without having been elected by a single vote, who shall work in Northern Ireland and who shall not. They seek to allocate food, to decide who shall eat and who shall not. By their action, children are prevented from going to school, essential services are in peril. The payment of social security benefits is reduced to chaos through interference with the methods of payment. By their use of force and intimidation they have condemned hundreds of thousands of workers to involuntary unemployment. What they do not realise - what I hope that they do not realise - is how far they may be imperilling the jobs of Northern Ireland for years to come, and this in a province where unemployment is traditionally one of the greatest social evils. We recognise that behind this situation lie many genuine and deeply held fears. I have to say that these fears are unfounded: that they are being deliberately fostered by people in search of power.


The people on this side of the water - British parents - have seen their sons vilified and spat upon and murdered. British taxpayers have seen the taxes they have poured out, almost without regard to cost - over £300 million a year this year with the cost of the Army operation on top of that - going into Northern Ireland. They see property destroyed by evil violence and are asked to pick up the bill for rebuilding it. Yet people who benefit from all this now viciously defy Westminster, purporting to act as though they were an elected government; people who spend their lives sponging on Westminster and British democracy and then systematically assault democratic methods. Who do these people think they are?
It is when we see the kind of arrogant, undemocratic behaviour now going on that the patience of citizens, parents, taxpayers becomes strained. Tonight I ask for an extension of that patience for as long as it is needed. Tonight I ask for the continued support of a long-suffering people in dealing with a situation in which the law is being set aside and essential services are being interrupted. It is our duty as the United Kingdom Parliament and the United Kingdom Government to ensure that minorities are protected, that those in greatest need are helped, that essential services are maintained, not by the condescension of a group of self-appointed persons operating outside the law, but by those who have been elected to ensure that these things shall be done.


The people of Northern Ireland and their democratically elected Assembly and Executive have the joint duty of seeing this thing through on the only basis on which true unity can be achieved - democratic elections, constitutional government and the spirit of tolerance and reconciliation. And in doing that they will have the support of the British Government, with our responsibilities within the United Kingdom and our responsibilities in world affairs, for law and order in Northern Ireland. We intend to see it through with them.