Patterson, Sarah (‘Saidie’) (1904–85), trade unionist and peace activist, was born 25 November 1904 at 32 Woodvale St., Shankill Road, Belfast, eldest of three children of William Patterson (d. 1912), shipyard blacksmith, and Sarah Patterson (née Moore), both of whom were devout methodists. She had five half-siblings by her mother's second marriage to widower Thomas Gracey, who shortly thereafter was permanently invalided by a nervous disorder. While attending Woodvale national school she assisted her mother in making up out-work in the textile trade. After her mother's death when she was 14 (December 1918), Saidie, left as the family's chief support, entered full-time employment in the Crumlin Road linen factory of William Ewart & Sons. A highly skilled weaver, with her interests in social justice and individual betterment she rose to a position of leadership on the factory floor and in the community. From 1922 she was active in the Belfast Girls’ Club Union, an interdenominational body emphasising self-improvement, and offering educational, recreational, and holiday services for young working women. Involved in the Belfast unemployment campaigns of the 1930s, she organised classes for local women in her home to study social conditions and means of amelioration, developing a consciousness of working women as a depressed group within a depressed social class. Recruited by Ernest Bevin (general secretary) and Robert Getgood (Belfast area organiser) as an organiser for the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers’ Union (ATGWU), she overcame sectarian divisions and fears of victimisation, and conducted a highly successful membership drive among Ewart's largely female workforce (1938–9). As shop steward in the Crumlin Road plant, she played a leading role in a seven-week all-out strike (February–April 1940), emerging as an effective public speaker and pamphleteer. Although failing in its immediate objective of securing a closed shop, the strike effected a land-breaking alteration in industrial relations in Northern Ireland's textile industry, resulting in regular consultation, and significant improvements in wages, benefits, and conditions.
A full-time official of the ATGWU's Belfast textile branch (1940–60), she was among the few women delegates at the time to the Irish Trade Union Congress. Active in the Standing Conference of Women's Organisations and other pressure groups, she highlighted how Northern Ireland's standards of health and social welfare provision lagged behind those of Britain, and lobbied for reforming legislation. A member from 1938 of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP), she organised the canvass that secured Getgood's election to the Stormont parliament from Belfast (Old Park) with substantial cross-sectarian support (1945). After the NILP lost all its Stormont seats in a disastrous 1949 election, Patterson was prominent in revival efforts, and was elected party treasurer (1950) and chairman (1956), the first woman in the latter office. As the party assumed an unequivocally pro-partition profile, Patterson described the cause of the NILP as the cause of reconciliation, and articulated political reform and democratic socialism within the union; intended to bridge the sectarian divide, the programme failed to attract significant numbers of either protestant or catholic voters.
Devout in her religious faith, Patterson was committed to a Christian socialism, rooted in the early ideology of the British labour movement, and informed by her methodist upbringing and practice. After 1946 she was also involved in the international evangelistic movement Moral Re-Armament (MRA), which emphasised personal moral rectitude as the basis for social change, and reconciliation among social classes, nations, and races. Such principles influenced her approach to industrial relations and political activity, as increasingly she stressed the mutual dependence of capital and labour, and cooperation rather than conflict. After retirement from her trade-union office (1960) she concentrated on MRA work, visiting divided communities in other countries, and renewed her activities with the girls’ club union.
Amid the political violence of the 1970s she devoted her energies to cross-community reconciliation. As chairwoman (1973–6) and life vice-president (1976–85) of Women Together – the first inter-sectarian peace organisation composed largely of working-class members – she oversaw efforts to combat ghettoisation by forging links across the sectarian divide, providing mutual support after incidents of violence, and organising interdenominational holidays for children and families. Patterson initially opposed as unduly provocative a proposed peace march up the Shankill Road during the 1976 Peace People campaign. Attempting without success to dissuade the organisers, she subsequently, according to her biographer, independently organised the Shankill area to ensure that the march take place peaceably. She addressed the ensuing peace rally (numbering some 30,000) in Woodvale Park, described as ‘the crowning experience’ of her life (28 August). Two months later she was among a number of catholic and protestant demonstrators who were injured when a peace march along the Falls Road was attacked by supporters of Provisional IRA (23 October). In September 1979 she delivered a peace oration at the ecumenical prayer vigil in St Patrick's cathedral, Dublin, on the occasion of Pope John Paul II's visit to Ireland.
Awarded an MBE (1953), Patterson received five international awards for her peace work, including the first world methodist peace award (1977). Named one of the world's fifty most distinguished women during the international women's year (1975), she received an honorary MA from the Open University (1977). Orderly and meticulous in her habits, afflicted with arthritis in her later years, she was noted for witty and engaging turns of phrase in conversation and public address. Indifferent to material possessions, she lived frugally in her Woodvale St. birthplace, her home throughout her life, and never married. She died 16 January 1985 in the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast.