Chapter 5 – Sectarianism in Retreat

May, 1974 was the high part of the sectarian reaction that begun in 1969. Thereafter, the Troubles began to take a different form. During the first years, there had been demonstrations, almost daily rioting, protest strikes and other forms of mass activity. People had been almost constantly on the streets, although most often behind sectarian banners.

The next period would see this mass activity subside. The Troubles would take more of the form of an extended secret war fought out by the various paramilitaries or the state forces. The mass of the people were kept in the dark, their main role, apart from looking on, was to add to the ever-increasing toll of innocent victims.

After the May ’74 stoppage, the labor movement slowly began to recover. The miners’ victory in Britain and then the election of a Labour government, encouraged workers to take strike action. Only months after the UWC victory, lorry drivers went on strike over pay. They were followed by milk workers who began an important strike in which Catholic and Protestant workers stood shoulder to shoulder.

The mood within the working class was shifting away from sectarianism. People were becoming sick of the rioting, the bombing and the killing which they could see was getting nowhere. Support for the paramilitaries began to drain away and all soon found themselves in crisis.

The UWC leaders had no idea what to do after the success of their stoppage. Within weeks their organisation began to fall to pieces, the various paramilitaries going their separate ways.

In 1975, the UDA leaders had to quell an attempt by its West Belfast section to break away. They also endured a bloody feud with the UVF. The UVF tried to turn to electoral politics in 1974, got nowhere, and reverted to an all out sectarian offensive in 1975. It quickly suffered reverses – including the smashing of its East Antrim organisation by an informer – before a coup late in 1975 installed a new leadership.

Early Provisional promises of ‘Victory in ’72’, ‘Victory in ’73’, ‘Victory in ’74’, were no longer believable. At the end of ’74 the Dublin based leadership called a ceasefire which more or less held until the autumn of ’75. Without the military campaign the IRA had no reason to exist. During the ceasefire members drifted away and the organisation was severely damaged. The Official IRA, which had earlier called a permanent ceasefire, was also in crisis. A split and feud in 1975 produced the Irish Republican Socialist Party/Irish National Liberation Army (IRSP/INLA – together know as the Irish Republican Socialist Movement – IRSM), leaving four dead in the process. A feud later in the year between the Officials and the Provisionals claimed 11 lives.

A Provisional decision to reply in kind to the UVF began a series of tit-for-tat atrocities. Catholics and Protestants alike looked on in horror at what was happening. Revulsion eventually turned to anger and workers began to take strike action in protest. In December 1975 and January 1976 three Trades Councils, Derry, Newry and Lurgan, organised general strikes and mass protests against the killings. Workers, Catholic and Protestant, turned out in their thousands.

The trade union leadership, under pressure from union members to do something, launched an anti-sectarian campaign called the Better Life for All Campaign. If a call had come from these leaders for a one day general strike, the province would have closed down in response. Instead they stuck to half-hearted gestures and allowed the opportunity to slip away.

Later in the year an incident in which three children were killed sparked off a peace movement. Mass demonstrations mainly of working class women, including one notable demonstration of 30,000 up the Shankill Road, soon followed. These ‘Peace People’ had no idea where to take this movement, they provided no answers to the Troubles, they ignored the poverty and the injustice which had initially ignited the violence, and not surprisingly, their campaign soon ran out of steam. But it had shown what was possible.

The British ruling class had no solution either. An attempt by Labour Secretary of State, Merlyn Rees, to set up a new local administration quickly collapsed. His successor, Roy Mason, sensing the crisis of the paramilitaries, abandoned political solutions and relied on repression.

Mason’s Heavy Hand

Under Mason, justice took the form of arrests, torture in police custody, forced confessions, and convictions in non-jury courts solely on the basis of these confessions. To create a sense of ‘normality’ for most people the role of the army was scaled clown except in the most troubled areas. A policy of ‘Ulsterisation’ of the security situation meant expanding the numbers and responsibilities of the police and the Ulster Defense Regiment, the almost entirely Protestant local regiment of the British army. During the mass upheaval of the early 1970s, repression only served to boost the paramilitaries, especially the Provisionals against whom it was chiefly aimed. By the time Roy Mason took charge, support for the paramilitary groups was declining. They faced dissent and some demoralization in their own ranks. Under these conditions Mason’s repressive policies did have an effect.

The leading Provisionals in the North put the blame for all that was going wrong on the southern leadership and the disastrous ceasefire of 1975. The ceasefire certainly did set the movement back but it was a symptom rather than the cause of the problem. The real cause was the fact that early illusions of a quick victory leading to British withdrawal had come up against the reality of an un-winnable campaign.

Under the insistence of the Northerners, a separate northern command was set up in 1976. Martin McGuinness of Derry became Chief of Staff the following year. Gerry Adams, a member of the republican movement since the mid 1960s, was released from prison in Long Kesh (The Maze) in 1977. Together they formed the core of a new leadership.

The old ideas of all-out escalation and rapid victory were abandoned. Now the strategy was of a long war of attrition. The old military structure was jettisoned in favor of a tighter cell system. An internal document recovered by the Southern state contained a frank admission of how serious the situation was. Acknowledging that members were breaking under police interrogation it went on, “coupled with this factor, which is contributing to our defeat, we are burdened with an inefficient infrastructure of commands, brigades, battalions and companies”.[13](our emphasis)

Mason publicly boasted that the state was “squeezing the terrorists like rolling up a toothpaste tube”[14]. This was the narrow view of someone who could see no further than short term repression. In fact the state could not hope to completely crush the Provisionals by military means. Repression alone could never be an answer – and the British ruling class had no political solution to put alongside it. By squeezing too hard, especially in clamping down on the rights of prisoners, Mason was preparing for a future partial recovery in the fortunes of the republican movement.

The IRA campaign continued, but on a lower ebb and never with the impact of before. Loyalist killings also continued but again on a lesser scale. Earlier in the Troubles Tory Home Secretary Reginald Maudling had publicly hoped that an “acceptable level of violence” could be achieved. From the point of view of the ruling class the late 1970s came close to this.

297 died in 1976. The toll for the following year was down dramatically to 112. In 1978 it was down again to 81. 1979 saw it rise slightly to 113 only to fall again to 75 in 1980, the lowest figure since 1970.

By now the Troubles were, for most people, simply a part of life. They did not arouse the passions or spark the mass anger of the early 1970s. An attempt by Paisley and the paramilitaries to repeat the success of the UWC stoppage ended in humiliation. Protestant workers largely ignored the call for a second strike in May 1977 and, after two weeks, the organisers were forced to call it off. Working class people began to pay more attention to the day to day struggle to exist than they did to the sporadic violence of the paramilitaries.

10% of the workforce were out of work in 1977. 150,000 were estimated to be living in poverty. Those who had looked to the Labour government to improve things were to be disappointed.

This government, like previous Labour administrations, tried to manage capitalism instead of overthrowing it. This meant that it was forced, in the end, to carry out policies dictated by the capitalists, including world capitalist institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Public expenditure was cut. Labour’s ‘Pay Policy’ was to limit wage increases to less than the rate of inflation and so cut real wages.

Workers in Northern Ireland were to the fore in resisting this policy. Mackies’ workers were the first to break the 10% wage limit imposed by the government in 1977. Other significant strikes and occupations took place that year. It ended with a strike by fire-fighters against the 10%.

In 1978 the government came back with a proposed .5% limit. For millions of workers this was more than they were prepared to stomach. That winter public service workers embarked on a prolonged series of protests and strikes. 30,000 low paid local authority workers in Northern Ireland came out in January 1979, backing their unions’ demand for a 40% rise. April saw 20,000 civil servants called out.

Although the unions were blamed for Labour’s defeat in the May 1979 general election, this was not the case. It was the pro-capitalist policies of the Labour government which disillusioned workers and which allowed the Conservatives, headed by Margaret Thatcher, to come to power.

Thatcher’s victory coincided with a downturn in the economy which was dramatically worsened by her strict monetarist policies of cuts in spending. Recession brought about a collapse of the already slender manufacturing sector of the Northern Ireland economy.

The number of workers employed in manufacturing had already fallen from 170,000 in 1970, to 140,000 in 1979. By 1982 it had shrunk again to 97,000. There were now more people out of work than had jobs in the wealth producing manufacturing sector.

Buoyed by the growing militancy of the working class in Britain – and by an explosion of the class struggle around the issue of unfair taxation in the South – workers in the North moved into action.

Angry demands from workers that the trade union leaders get off their backsides and do something, spurred a somewhat reluctant Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to call a day of action, in effect a half day general strike, on 2 April 1980 against Tory policies. Even without a clear strike call, 50,000 came out. Thousands marched in Belfast and in Derry.

These years saw the sectarian conflict move a little backstage and class issues came more into view. This was a time when the socialist ideas of Militant and the Labour and Trade Union Croup received a ready echo within the trade unions and among young people.

This was no end to the Troubles – merely a certain reduction in their intensity. Nothing was solved, nothing resolved, but there was an interlude in which the labor movement had the opportunity to shake off the effects of the early 1970s and deliver a blow against sectarianism.


  1. O’Brien, Brendan. The Long War (The IRA and Sinn Fein – 1983 to Today). O’Brien Press, 1993. p 109.
  2. Kelley, Brandon. The Longest War: Northern Ireland and the IRA. 1982. p 277.