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Integrity query a right cheek

(Robin Livingstone, Irelandclick.com)

The biggest – some say the only – defeat suffered by Ian Paisley during his political career came in 1977 when the Official Unionist Party used its loaf for once and put some clear blue water between it and the doughty doctor.

Convinced that the UWC strike could be made to work again and keen to associate himself with a great loyalist victory the way he had failed to in 1974, Paisley called the Prods out in protest at what he said was the unwillingness of the Labour government of the day to take on the IRA.

The organisation of what was to become known as 'Paisley's Strike' was undertaken by the United Unionist Action Council (UUAC), a loose coalition of the UWC, the DUP and certain of the loyal orders. That's organisation in the loosest sense of the term – the words 'booze-up' and brewery spring to mind. Some union bloke smoking a Park Drive and wearing horn-rimmed specs assured Paisley that he could bring Ballylumford out with the click of his fingers; unfortunately he forgot to tell the workers who remained ignorant of their central role up to the very last minute.

The Orange Order – led by Rev Martin Smyth – and the OUP – led by Harry West – figured out very early on that the whole thing was a shambles and got offside. Later, in a fit of pique, Paisley lacerated UDA leader Andy Tyrie, but somebody quickly reminded him that it was the fellas with the masks and pickaxe handles who had won the day in 1974 and the DUP sued for peace with the loyalist paramilitary group. Consquently Andy's men were on the street applying the kind of gentle persuasion they're known for when the strike began.

It was announced that the strike would begin on May 3 and Paisley declared: "I am only remaining in public life to see this thing through, and if it fails then my voice will no longer be heard." It started badly and went downhill from there. Violent intimidation was rife and the UDA clashed with the RUC and British army, but after an initial series of confused and sporadic walk-outs and stoppages, it was clear that the economic and social life of the North was continuing as normal. As the inevitability of failure hit home, Paisley's bluster and bravado turned to damage limitation. "Whatever happens out there is no responsibility of mine," said Paisley as the violence continued and the six counties continued to work. "If the British army and Mr Mason bring about circumstances in which this happens, that is their business."

There was one final, desperate attempt to get the Ballylumford workers out. On the fourth day of the strike Paisley was driven to Larne to address the power workers personally. On the way down, a colleague in the car with him said Paisley told him: "I'm finished if this doesn't work."

It didn't. Ballylumford stayed open and the strike staggered on embarrassingly into the ninth day, although hardly anybody noticed. Asked to make good on his promise to go away if the strike failed, Paisley denied that it had been a damp squib and said he was going nowhere. Meanwhile, Martin Smyth and Harry West sat back and thanked their lucky stars.

A couple of things occur. Reg Empey's first act of any note as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party was to stand shoulder to shoulder with Ian Paisley when the DUP leader made his infamous unquenchable fire speech ahead of the Springfield Orange parade. It was a decision that disappointed a lot of people – myself included – who know Sir Reg to be an astute and capable politician. Getting in frame with Ian Paisley is a bad idea at any time, but getting in frame with Ian Paisley when the Orange drums are pounding is bound to end in tears. The UUP has since been trying without much success to clear up the mess left by the collision of the party's traditional law and order stance with its DUP lite reaction to the recent riots. Why Sir Reg wanted to join in a fight picked by his number one political rival and fought on his terms is anybody's guess.

Secondly, it's a bit rich for the DUP to call into question the integrity of Rev Harold Good and Fr Alec Reid when the party's leader, himself a man of the cloth, reneged on his promise to jack it in if his attempt to close the place down failed. There are a lot of things on which Ian Paisley can speak with authority: the Reformation, for one; evangelical revivals, for another. But when he starts to talk about integrity, we're entitled to wonder where his was when the 1977 strike collapsed.

September 30, 2005

This article appeared first on the Irelandclick.com web site on September 29, 2005.