The Great Irish Cement Strike of 1970 - "FE 3 C. (CEMENT)"

Hugely entertaining account of the Peoples Democracy group's militant support for the six month unofficial strike by cement workers in Drogheda and Limerick in 1970.

From Anarchy #6 (second series) 1971.

The cement strike began in Eire in February, 1970. The main employer Cement Limited made £6 million profit in 1969. They paid £1,685,000 out to their shareholders, that is over £2,000 for every man out on strike (750). The workers' case was that for a dirty filthy job—dermatitis was an accepted occupational hazard—their meagre wages of £13 16s. plus an 8s. bonus which hadn't been increased for 20 years, was totally inadequate for a 40-hour week.

A massive new plant in Drogheda threatened redundancies and at least an end to overtime on which the men depended in order to make a living wage. They negotiated for a £7 a week rise. The company offered 50s. It was refused. The Labour court approved the offer with the proviso that another pound a week be payable from 1st June. The strike was on. The Irish Transport and General Workers Union behaved despicably, as did the ATGWU.

Only £5 a week was paid out in strike pay, and very little effort was made to black all cement coming into the South, which would have ended the strike considerably sooner than eventually transpired. The strikers themselves, assisted by other workers in solidarity with their cause did manage to destroy 8,000 tons of cement which were hi-jacked at various times when scabs attempted to bring it across the border.

In the North the Peoples Democracy (PD) was the only socialist group to get involved following contacts with the strikers. Money was collected in both Armagh and Belfast for the strikers and leaflets distributed in both towns, and distributed at the border to would-be scabs. Several articles appeared in the "Free Citizen", but as the strike wore on more and more scabs in the North began to take advantage of the cement shortage in the South. Anyone with a lorry could make himself £80 for a 60 mile drive. Various small ports began to be visited by cement-carrying ships. Following representations from the strikers and the PD the Belfast dockers agreed to black all cement coming in, but the trade went on through the small ports of Cushendun, Kilkeel and Ardglass.

The PD began holding meetings in these towns and were well received, -even in Kilkeel, a well-known Paisleyite/Ulster Volunteer Force stronghold. On June 16 the PD went down with a group of 30 people to hold another meeting on the pier at Ardglass where they had been informed by locals that cement would be unloaded. A previous meeting had been well attended by local people and there had been no trouble, so only 30 went along. The PD marched down the pier and began to set up the loudspeaking equipment within earshot of the scabs. There were only three local policemen about, leaning indolently against the wall.

As the people gathered around the car with the microphone, a cement-carrying lorry accelerated into the crowd forcing some of them to jump for their lives. One youth threw a stone at the departing lorry without inflicting any damage and suddenly two tender loads of Royak Ulster Constabulary men, the riot squad, appeared out of nowhere. The youth was seized and dragged into the tender. A PD member went up to ask what the charge was and where he was being taken. He was seized by an hysterical Inspector R. L. Brown and thrown in also. DI Campbell then seemed to go berserk and ordered his men to "get stuck in" to the people standing beside a pile of fish boxes.

Without the hated TV cameras to record their fun and games the riot squad were obviously intent on a bit of revenge. 425, Trevor Little (known jocosely to his friends as "the beast") completely lost control and assaulted three bystanders before he was hauled off by less zealous colleagues, and Sergeant Ferguson and Inspector McFarland excelled themselves with "zest". Within four minutes 15 PD members, including two girls had been arrested. Brown arrived at the tender and pointed at the prisoners saying to his grinning underlings "pick a man and charge him".

The lack of control of the police and in particular their officers surprised even the hardened veterans amongst the ranks of the demonstrators. When DI Campbell was asked by a speaker why people were being arrested he screamed "why don't you all go down south where you belong". None of the demonstrators was from Eire.

The prisoners were taken to the local sty where several had to have medical treatment—Dermot Kelly in particular after an attempt to tear his balls off by Sgt. Ferguson while he was being held by five minions. Two more people were arrested outside the station for "jaywalking", a charge which was altered to "disorderly behaviour", the commonest charge, closely followed by "assault". The two girls and three juveniles were allowed bail, the rest taken to a cell in Belfast and brought to Bangor in the morning where bail was reluctantly granted after guarantees for £1,700 were produced. (It was as well that' most answered their bail since the PD didn't have £170 let alone ten times that amount.)

The trial itself was a travesty. It was held in front of the arch-bigot Walmsley, who announced himself convinced of the moral turpitude of the prisoners in advance saying that the police "had informed him that the words 'pigs' and 'corrupt court' had been found written on a spectator's bench during the three day trial". The PD were ably defended, for free, by Paddy McCrory, Ulster's nearest to a people's lawyer. However, he was unable to be in the court for all the cases since it was held miles away in Downpatrick and his deputy was abysmal. Not that it mattered really. Despite the admitted perjury of various constables and one inspector—whom McCrory crucified in the box, to the dismay of the 70 police who crowded into the small court to intimidate the witnesses—a local man who agreed to give evidence was immediately summonsed himself—Walmsley lived up to his reputation. The class nature of the verdicts were interesting also. The two teachers were acquitted, the student& were fined and eight workers (including one girl) were given sentences ranging from four months to 15 months.

All sentences were automatically appealed. After the case there was much discussion. We had been framed, but we had only ourselves to blame. We knew the police were after us and we weren't careful enough. Either we should have done absolutely nothing illegal OR we should have acted secretly and not got caught. As to the conduct of the case we had fallen between the two stools of treating it as a political trial—which it was—or treating it as a civil trial and doing anything short of a deal to get off. (It is also perhaps true to say that the fact that one of the defendants, who had several previous convictions, had skipped bail, with our prior knowledge, and hadn't helped matters by ringing up Walmsiey, a RM whom he knew of old, on the morning, of the trial and giving his name. "Why aren't you in cour this morning?" asked RM Albert. "You have to catch me first, motherfucker" was the rejoinder, which, however apposite. may not have done his co-defendants any good.)

Obviously a purge was on. Within a week PD members found themselves facing over 100 summonses for everything from squatting to picketing and even 30 summoned for drinking after hours. We replied with articles on police perjury and invitations to sue in the "Free Citizen" and unflattering references to Albert, but we determined not to forget the cement strike. One condition of continuing bail had been an undertaking not to go back to Ardglass and so the campaign was switched. In addition to trying to find the £400 needed for outstanding fines we continued picketing and leafletting.

For no other reason than to harass the police 18 official complaints concerning police brutality—all genuine as it happened—were made. The senior police officer who conducted the "impartial" inquiry subsequently admitted that it had taken up over 1,000 man hours.

However, in Armagh, the peace was disturbed by a strange phenomenon. Within the course of two weeks no fewer that 21 lorries owned by cement scabs mysteriously combusted. Worse still, at the time the police and fire brigade were at the other side of the town dealing with anonymous and malicious phone calls. Subsequently police have told claims tribunals that they believed the fires to be the work of a "well-known local group of political troublemakers", but that no one had been apprehended—an incredible admission of incompetence.

Compensation is hard to obtain unless it can be proved that three or more people were responsible for the conflagration. A certain "plumber" Duffy, himself a former PD member, gave evidence. A pathetic figure, the plumber had been an enthusiastic member until tempted by the big profits to be earned by scabbing he had taken his lorry on the cement run, claiming to be "checking up on local scabs". He had been expelled, somewhat forcibly from the local PD HQ down a long flight of stairs. Speaking as well as he could considering the circumstances he claimed to have been at PD meetings when the names and addresses of local lorry-owning scabs had been announced and that the speaker had said that as a "private individual he was powerless to prevent the righteous wrath of the people". Duffy is, of course, scarcely a reliable witness for his lorry was mysteriously set alight amongst the six remaining Armagh lorries the next week.

The destruction of 27 lorries by person or persons unknown ended the lorry running from Armagh, but the habit had spread unfortunately to Newry where five cement loads were destroyed. Here it is true to say that it was perhaps more due to the zeal of the Newry fire brigade who were summoned on several occasions to parked cement lorries which were, they were informed by local bystanders, on fire. In vain did the drivers protest that this was not so and that the token fire had been extinguished.

The stern-faced and diligent Newry fire brigade, all union members, solemnly hosed down five loads of cement, inadvertently destroying them, but doubtless saving the town from a mighty conflagration. More serious was the irresponsible outbreak of hooliganism, which the local papers maliciously blamed upon Newry PD, when a ship bearing cement attempted to enter Newry harbour and unload. Over 200 local people emerged from their houses and stoned the boat out of the harbour where it was forced to return to Holland without unloading.

After 22 weeks the cement strike ended in partial defeat for the strikers. They were granted more money but it was tied into a productivity deal. The suffering of the strikers and their families had been great and the unions emerged with no credit, nor the English unions which refused to black the cement, nor the "democratic socialist people's republic of Poland" which shipped most of the cement. The cement industry has now been taken over by the government.

The epilogue to the PD's part in the struggle came in October, when the appeals were heard. These resulted in Dermot Kelly being acquitted (he had got 15 months from Walmsley), a clear acceptance by RM Brown, no liberal, that the police had been guilty of both perjury and brutality. Micky McCullough, James Ruddy, Brid McGlade, and Denis Cassin all got their sentences reduced and suspended. Oliver Cosgrove got his seven months reduced to one month, Eugene Cassin and Brian Vallely had to serve sentences of four and six months respectively. John McGuffin and Joe Quigley had previously been acquitted. John Curly who had skipped bail was eventually caught some months later but due to a technicality and the able defence of PD's new lawyer only served two months. Albert Walmsley is still on the bench but a changed man.

The crown prosecutor has been heard to say "that bastard Walmsley's been intimidated by all those phone calls and letters, he's no bloody use for a conviction now". Surely no one believes this harsh judgement! Is it likely that a man of such proven experience and thuggery would allow his judgement to be affected? Those who point to his rapid mellowing are obviously forgetting the consequences of old age. His colleague RM Fox whose house was bombed last month is also a man of stronger stuff than these terrorists! The spell in jail has not affected adversely any of the PD members — eight of whom have now done time, indeed their protests against brutality by warders has even resulted in some of them drastically altering their behaviour, though some say that the explosion outside the house of the notorious screw Madden was in some way influential.

The PD had nothing to do with this and it was only coincidental that he had been named in the "Free Citizen" the week before. The paper is more than willing to sue anyone rash enough to assert otherwise. The lessons to be learned from the cement strike action, only one of the many campaigns the PD engaged in in the last two years, are several. Firstly, more planning before demos. Secondly, concerted courtroom tactics. Thirdly, the power of solidarity, with the dockers who blacked cement in Belfast and Larne, and with the strikers whose meetings we attended in Drogheda and Dundalk and who supported us when we were in court. Finally, the virtues of "self help" and local initiative.