WELL, it began on schedule on Monday at midnight. It was muted, even sluggish, but then so was the last one — at least initially. And that stoppage in May, back in 1974, brought most of this place to a standstill and killed our first power-sharing experiment in more than 50 years.
As I write, the latest strike effort is replete with imponderables. At least the hotels and restaurants — those few that remain to us — are coining money as journalists whom no one has seen for years come out of the woodwork and television crews descend from all points.
It must be admitted that very little in the way of hard news has come from Northern Ireland over recent months. All forms of the news media have long admitted that getting a story from here these days is as futile a process as squeezing blood from the proverbial turnip.
And then the undeniable frustration of the Loyalist population over what many Protestants see as a lack of punch, an inability to hit hard on the part of the police and British Army, began to boil over, In any case, that is what we were told, regularly and at some length, by the hard-line Loyalist politicians. The Provisional IRA was tearing the place apart, murders went on, people were living in terror, they said. The security forces are winning, every day the courts put more people away, the police make more arrests, replied Roy Mason, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
The reply didn't satisfy some and the Rev Ian Paisley, well known to all, and his cohort Ernest Baird, less publicised but just as extreme, began to rumble. After a few weeks of noises their intentions were made public in detail when the Irish Times ran a story saying that Baird's hitherto toothless Action Council had grown fangs, recruited Paisley, and would strike.
Their demands came in the form of an impossible ultimatum to Roy Mason: smash the IRA and give us back our government at Stormont (for 50 years it functioned as a "Protestant parliament for a Protestant people"). They gave him seven days.
When the deadline came at midnight on Monday, there were few signs of activity. Driving round the Protestant ghetto areas soon after twelve the city was unnaturally quiet, but then manypeople had gone home early for safety's sake. Small clusters of men stood at street corners and watched passing cars.
'Outside the headquarters of the Ulster Defence Association, deep in Protestant East Belfast, Paisley looked tired but remained confident that the strike would bite when Loyalists realised what was at stake. However, in the glare of television lights, the strain seemed to be showing and the now familiar cliches smacked of bluster.
In the background, some distance away from the hub of attention, stood the stocky, corpulent figure of UDA leader Andy Tyrie. The shock of black hair, the moustache and the steel-rimmed glasses pricked memories of May 1974.
Tyrie is a hard man, backed by the considerable and ruthless power of the UDA, largest and by far the most efficient of Loyalist paramilitary groups. It is the tough and committed manpower of this organisation which will fuel the strike on its journey to success or failure, particularly in Belfast.
On Tuesday, reporters, strike picketers and some determined workers were at it bright and early. Near Harland and Wolff's shipyard, Belfast's biggest employer, hundreds of UDA men — backed by members of the illegal Ulster Volunteer Force — gathered menacingly by the main entrance soon after 7 am.
Hundreds of workers threaded their way through side streets to the yard, walking in twos and threes. Elsewhere the tale was similar. Sonic factories reported full attendance, others varied in turnout and everywhere were reports of intimidation. Much of it was of the "We'd like you to close your shop" variety. It may not he remembered that one estimate put work attendance during the first day of the 1974 stoppage as high as 90 per cent. Thus, although the early signs did not seem hopeful for the strikers, they have far more muscle than was shown initially.
Widespread opposition to the idea of a strike — if not, on the Protestant side, to the strikers' demands — does not mean that the people who are worried about the effects of a prolonged stoppage will actually, physically oppose it.
So if and when intimidation and the understandable fear of uncommitted men and women for their own and their families' safety results in a de facto strike and freezes Northern Ireland, what can be done by the powers (if you'll pardon that doubtful euphemism) that be?
Some sources in London have suggested that far more than the stated numbers of 1,200 extra troops have been sent here from the mainland. Other observers, in Belfast, suggest that therecever was the oft-stated 14,000 soldiers here in the first place.
Whatever the truth, the army's role — despite Mason's repeated intention of acting "firmly and with resolution" remains unclear. If soldiers move sharply against the strikers then martyrs may be created, any harsh action may irritate many Protestants and the troops may do more harm than good.
On the other hand, everyone remembers 1974. Any similar vacillation and inertia by the generals and by Westminster may hand the day to the Paisley/ Baird/Tyrie men just as easily as happened three years ago. One thing is certain: no one, but no one, envies Mason and his Cabinet colleagues their right to decide.
A few sages are musing these days that this may be the last summer of our long discontent, that an end — the possibilities don't bear thinking about may really be nigh. Perhaps the English are about to learn that their curious wee bit of this island is really ungovernable?