08 January 2006

Robin Livingstone: Merlyn cast a spell... and made democracy disappear

Daily Ireland

BY Robin Livingstone

The death of former Secretary of State Merlyn Rees this week brought back vivid memories for me of the Ulster Workers Council strike of 1974 when a plucky little band of Ulstermen brought London to its knees.

And the amazing thing was that they were armed with nothing more than a half-dozen power stations, the British army, the RUC, the BBC, eight reservoirs, an airport, a ferry terminal and four-fifths of the civil service (the other fifth was off sick). Personally, I thought it was all great fun at the time.
But at that age I also thought coming down the Hannahstown Hill on a bike at 40mph with my hands in the air was great fun and my favourite food was butter and sugar sandwiches.
I suppose you could say that schoolboys tend to have a different handle on things. After the power went, my mother set up a primitive barbecue-type contraption in the back garden consisting of 12 bricks and the grill from the cooker on which she made toast and heated tins of beans and spaghetti.
On warm May evenings we’d sit around on chairs taken from the kitchen and eat while the sun set over the Black Mountain. All that was missing was somebody with a mouth organ. Out the back of our house was the Half-Moon Lake, which was... well, a lake shaped like a half-moon set in ten acres of forest and grassland.
We used to build rafts and sail there, while British soldiers drank beer under cover of the trees. One night a patrol passed by the back of our house while we were having our vittles and they stopped to look.
There they stood, eight of them, with rifles in the crook of their arms and the black padded gloves that they always wore, even in the summer; and there we sat, our mouths full of beans, a battery-powered radio tuned into BBC Radio Ulster for regular strike updates.
One of my bigger brothers stood up and invited them to retire to their base, then posed a pertinent poser about whether their presence might not be more urgently required in more easterly parts of the city.
I can’t remember his exact words, but the word ‘Brit’ was featured prominently, as were the words ‘Dunkirk’, ‘Singapore’ and, curiously, ‘thicko, cowardly, corner-boy dole-hoppers’.
Of course, Merlyn could have got the power back on in the blink of an eye had he been so inclined, but he wasn’t so inclined and it came to pass that a bunch of blokes with literacy issues, bad haircuts and pickaxe handles took charge of this here pravince while Merlyn sat in his oak-panelled office at Stormont and pondered his future.
It was at that low point that he decided that never again would he be humiliated, and thus was forged the steely determination that was to see internment continue and an IRA ceasefire undermined.
A lot of people still haven’t forgiven the BBC for having, in their eyes, strengthened the UWC’s hand by broadcasting information supplied by the loyalist/anarchist strikers – traffic updates, petrol stations with petrol, RVH major surgery cancellations, that sort of thing.
That criticism is undeserved, of course, and just to prove that the corporation maintained its independence throughout the difficult days of the strike, I’m pleased to reproduce here the Radio Ulster programme schedule for Sunday, May 19, 1974, the same day that Merlyn Rees declared a state of emergency and flew to Chequers for urgent talks with the prime minister and a non-tinned dinner.
7am: Good Morning Ulster. Up-to-the-minute news with our temporary anchors Andy Tyrie and Tommy Lyttle. Regular traffic updates from Mervyn ‘Black & Decker’ McClurg in our met office in the lounge bar of the Machete and Meathook on the Albertbridge Road.
This morning, a yet-to-be-named UDA brigadier will present ‘What the Papers Would Say if There Were Any’.
9am: The Lenny Murphy Show. Music and chat with the charismatic loyalist leader.
This morning Lenny recalls some hilarious evenings in the back rooms of loyalist bars on the Shankill Road.
12noon: News, drug traffic and weather.
12.10pm: Talkback. Your chance to have your say on the hot issues of the day. You’re on air as soon as you tell us what school you went to.
1.30pm: Easy Does It: Middle-of-the-road and easy listening tracks to brighten your day.
Take off your forage cap, kick off your platforms, put down that iron bar and relax. Whether you’re listening at a barricade, in a shebeen, a drug den or a knocking shop, there’s something here for everyone. Nearly.
5pm: Good Evening Ulster: All the latest developments brought to you as and when they happen from our team of crack masked reporters across the city.
In sport: Catholics in local soccer, the growing menace.
In business: We ask: Have you paid up yet?
7pm: Country Cousins: The best in C&W brought to you by Simpson ‘the Sheriff’ Gibson.
Tracks to look out for include ‘Romper Room Blues’, ‘My Love for You is Higher Than My Heels’ and ‘A Warm Girl in My Arms and a Cold Taig in My Boot’.
10pm: Reflections: Wind down with Pastor Ivan ‘Stewarty’ Stewart of the First Portadown Revival Tabernacle.
Tonight Pastor Stewarty considers Leviticus, Chapter 3, Verse 11:
“Smite ye mightily the poofters and the fenians. For a man that lieth down with a man displeaseath the Lord. But a man that worketh not and yet hath 15 unwashed children is an abomination in the eyes of the Maker.”
Midnight: Close down. And that’s an order.

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