The ICTU leaders, no more militant then than they are now, refused to get involved in a strike, but they did support a proposal by the ITGWU to have a demonstration outside working hours. On 11 March, 50,000 people marched through Dublin, most of them calling for a general strike. The ICTU continued to oppose any strike action so the Dublin Trades' Council was called on to organise a stoppage on 20 March.
An estimated 150,000 or more people marched through Dublin on 20 March and other protests took place in thirty towns throughout the country, including a march by 40,000 workers in Cork. The march wasn't due to leave Parnell Square until 2.30 p.m. but had to start at 2.00 p.m. because the surrounding area was so clogged up with thousands of workers. At one point the march stretched up O'Connell Street, D'Olier Street, College Green, Dawson Street, St. Stephen's Green, Merrion Row, Upper Merrion Street, Lincoln Place, Westland Row, Pearse Street, Westmoreland Street and back to O'Connell Street, with as many as twenty to thirty abreast on most streets. Mai Clifford, the DCTU's first woman president, led the march, from which Congress leaders were conspicuously absent.
All suburban trains came off for the morning rush and bus routes were stopped as soon as they had dropped their passengers in the city centre for the march. Flights out of Dublin Airport were cancelled and industry was completely disrupted. Dublin port was closed down and the ESB had to introduce power cuts by the early evening.
Many workers stopped work to attend the march, although they did not strike for the whole day, but overall, the demonstrations were a huge success, telling the Fianna Fáil government in no uncertain terms that workers were sick of unjust taxation and wage restraint and were ready to do something serious about them.
Despite the lack of support from the ICTU, the Dublin Trades' Council called another stoppage on 1 May, which was attended by 30,000 people, many of whom came in spite of threats of discipline by their own unions. The ICTU had promised to suppress militancy in the unions in return for the National Understanding, which they negotiated with the government while the tax strikes were taking place. Congress Executive had completely ignored the decision of the Special Delegate Conference the previous November to reject talks for a new National Wage Agreement.
They went ahead with the semi-secret negotiations with the government and called another Special Delegate Conference on 9 March 1979 at which they pushed through an agreement to enter the talks, on the basis that the new deal would secure massive tax reform. This National Understanding was a forerunner of the partnership deals to which the ICTU is so committed and like the PNR, PESP, PCW and P2000, it promised much from the workers and delivered little from government and employers.
The ICTU's distancing of themselves from the tax protests was made clear by then Congress President, Harold O'Sullivan: "There is no connection between our talks with the Government and the march. What we were talking about does not derive from any march or protest, but from our own special delegate conference and our memorandum to the Government for a national plan." (Evening Press, 20 March 1979) [Our italics]
In an obvious attempt to sideline the DCTU's initiative, the Congress Executive set up an action committee to spearhead further protest for tax reform. The committee's first move was to substitute a petition for tax reform for the strike called on 1 May. The General Secretary of the ICTU, Ruadhrí Roberts, was quoted in the Irish Times of 28 April 1979, as saying "that protest strikes, or marches, inside working working hours, were not in accordance with ICTU policy."
ICTU's policy, then and now, was to accept the false promises of government and employers. The National Understanding of 1979 delivered a deal in which tax reform was buried within a trade-off for wage restraint. It promised a 15 per cent increase over a fifteen-month period, which might seem better than the 9.25 per cent over thirty six months netted by P2000, but this was a time of rocketing inflation for ordinary people, when profits were increasing at a rate of 30 per cent.
The ICTU Executive chose to ignore the depth of feeling of the 30,000 workers who stopped work on 1 May 1979, and marched through Dublin City despite very cold and wet conditions. The so-called 'union leaders' were not elected by the upwards of 150,000 rank and file trade unionists who took to the streets on 20 March 1979 yet they took it upon themselves to undermine a campaign which had the potential to force the government to undertake a complete and long overdue overhaul of the tax system.