Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Ulster Workers' Council strike was my political baptism

Brian Faulkner
Brian Faulkner

I remember May 1974 very well. It was when I sat my first A-Level (in politics).

It was also when the Ulster Workers' Council (responding to Brian Faulkner's victory in an Assembly vote on the Sunningdale Agreement) confirmed the beginning of a "political strike" to bring down the power-sharing Executive.

I was 18 and a supporter of both Faulkner and power-sharing. This had caused me some problems – at school and at home.

From memory, I was in a very small minority among my sixth form peers in supporting Faulkner. Indeed, some began to call me "the Fenian-lover" and a handful just stopped speaking to me at all.

Someone whom I had regarded as a close friend – we had known each other since primary school days – hasn't spoken to me since.

A teacher told me I was bringing "shame on the family that adopted you and gave you a home".

My father Sam was a well-known name in unionist, Orange and Presbyterian circles in Co Armagh: a former chairman of the unionist association, a clerk of the Kirk and a leading Orangeman.

My support for Faulkner (whom he also counted as a friend) upset him, but he told me to argue for what I believed in and vote as my principles dictated.

Family friends were not so understanding and I overheard one say to my mum: "Did you check there was no Catholic blood in him?"

Oddly enough, the impact of the strike mostly passed me by: my priority was the exams.

The school – which had boarders and day boys – made provision for emergency accommodation if required, but I can't remember if anyone availed of it.

But those 14 days still changed me and shaped me, because I realised then that there were going to be many more big, emotional, family-dividing, friend-splitting moments in politics.

If you can't cope with that reality, then don't get involved in politics.

That's the real lesson to be learned from May 1974.

Alex Kane is a commentator and writer

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