The unemployed of Belfast rose up 80 years ago against poverty. They united against sectarian division—and won.
Conditions for all unemployed workers in Belfast in 1932 were miserable. They were incomparably worse for those forced to seek “exceptional distress relief” from the Board of Guardians and the detested workhouse.
Such relief was given to married men only. One form it took was cash payments to those employed on “outdoor relief schemes”. This was a form of workfare that forced the unemployed to do hard labour building public works, especially roads.
Catholics were not only discriminated against in work, but even on the dole. This was a deliberate policy of the sectarian Northern Irish state. Its plan was to get Catholics to emigrate, while using their misery to make conditions worse for Protestant workers.
Northern Ireland’s unemployment rate was consistently twice has high as Britain from the formation of the state in 1921. In the 1930s the ranks of the unemployed were swelling with sacked Protestant workers from the shipyards and the engineering factories.
Communists organised in the Revolutionary Workers Groups (RWG) set up an Outdoor Relief Workers Committee in July 1932. The unemployed workers demanded an end to task work, an increase in payment and an end to payment in kind.
They began to organise the relief workers to fight for better pay and trade union conditions, as well as the extension of relief to single people. Their first protest in July saw 1,000 march.
By the end of August it was 20,000. And at the end of September the 2,000 outdoor relief workers voted to strike from 3 October. On that morning flying pickets made sure the strike was solid. That evening some 20,000 joined the strikers on a demonstration.
Bands from both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide came on the march. The only neutral, non-sectarian tune both sides knew was “Yes! We Have No Bananas”. As the march went through the Catholic Falls and the Protestant Shankill the tune was played again and again.
The RWG paper Irish Workers Voice wrote, “It was an overwhelming demonstration of class might and determination, as the masses moved forward, rank after rank, their crimson banners gleaming in the flare of the lighted torches they were carrying.
“This was the working class—no political party or religious sect. Old differences and prejudices had vanished, burnt out in the fire of a common suffering and need.”
Further mass demonstrations were held at the workhouse. The police attacked. Clothes and food shops were looted. Thousands lay on tram lines to hold the road outside the workhouse so a meeting could be held there.
William Boyd, an RWG member, told the meeting, “We can paralyse this city. We can stop the trams, the gas, the electricity and bring the city to stagnation—if only we have solidarity. The very threat of a general strike will be sufficient to bring these people to their knees.”
The next day 300 men applied to enter the workhouse. A huge crowd filled the road outside. A tram was acquired to defend the crowd against repeated baton charges.
Inside the men danced and sang and refused to go to bed at 8pm. The men were all thrown out in the morning after they demanded eggs for breakfast.
The strike committee set up a food distribution centre. The destitution and desperation of the unemployed was real. One man arrested for breaking the window of a department store told a court, “I broke the window because I was hungry. Jail is the only place I can get food.”
The Relief Workers Committee decided that there should be a vast demonstration on Tuesday 11 October, accompanied by a rent strike, hire-purchase strike and school student strike.
The Communists were calling for a general strike but the trades council opposed the move. Instead it gave £5 to the relief workers’ strike fund.
The establishment took fright nonetheless. The proposed demonstration was banned and newspapers denounced speakers at unemployed meetings as enemies of the state.
Rev John Spence, who ran a charity for the poor, warned of the “menacing advance of atheistic communism”. Unionist MP Herbert Dixon spoke of socialist agitators attempting to “smash the machine of the state”.
The Daily Mail even spotted a “husky Russian” among the rioters. For his part, the Pope urged the Irish bishops to be vigilant against communist evil.
As the left said the march would go ahead, hundreds of extra police were put on the streets and aremd with 4,000 rifles. Troops were put on alert. Some 2,000 extra police were put on street in armed cars.
In the mainly Protestant east Belfast, the Unionist newspaper the Newsletter wrote that “about 80 police advanced at the double and laid about the crowd”. For the rest of the day and most of the next one crowds of unemployed workers, Catholic and Protestant, fought side by side.
Barricades were erected and trenches dug across side streets. As the police were forced to retreat they opened fire. Two workers were killed, one Protestant and one Catholic. Hundreds more were wounded. A week-long curfew was introduced.
In a deliberate strategy police started to concentrate their attention on Catholic areas, conducting house to house searches under the pretext of seeking out “armed Communist agitators”.
According to one hostile account, “On the Shankill Road crowds of growling men lounged about waiting. Suddenly a big red faced woman with a black shawl hanging over her shoulders, wisps of hair hanging over her eyes, appeared from almost nowhere.
“Wild eyed and panting from exertion, she ran to the crowds of men and in quick tense language told them that the police were in conflict in the Falls Road. That one man had been killed.
“‘Are you going to let’em down?’ she shrieked. A cheer went up. ‘No by heavens we are not,’ they roared back and in a twinkling an orgy of destruction had begun.”
The Unionist Belfast Telegraph complained, “There was an exchange of mischief makers all over the city so as to confuse the police force.”
The government and the media all described it as the worst rioting in Belfast for 50 years. It wasn’t—it was the best. After years of pogroms and sectarianism, a riot in Belfast was about coming together.
Then as now, the bosses tried to use sectarianism to divide the workers. The media tried to claim the IRA was behind the trouble. In Catholic areas they fired guns and in Protestant areas they used baton charges.
But it backfired, creating even greater determination among the workers. Over 100,000 attended the funerals of the murdered rioters.
On 12 October government officials opened negotiations with the leaders of the Belfast trades council, who at the last minute had threatened to call a general strike. The Newsletter welcomed the news, writing, “The firebrands are being swept away by responsible trade union leaders.”
Lord Craigavon, the Unionist prime minister of Northern Ireland, thanked them for stepping in. “It is infinitely preferable to have some responsible persons with whom to negotiate rather than a rabble running round town,” he declared.
Afraid of the movement that they had awoken, the government and the city’s board of guardians gave in. On 14 October a mass meeting heard that the unemployed workers had won an increase from eight shillings to 20 shillings a week.
A leader of the unemployed, the Communist activist Thomas Geehan, addressed a jubilant crowd. “The last two weeks would be recorded as two of the most glorious in the history of the working class in Belfast,” he said.
“First of all they saw Protestant and Catholic workers marching together, and Tuesday they saw them fighting together. The terms now offered constitute a magnificent victory.”
What role did different parts of the left play?
The Labour Party in Northern Ireland argued that the way to help the unemployed was to vote Labour in the board of guardians elections in 1933. It opposed any form of direct action. But as the movement grew much of the organising was done through Labour branches.
The right of the Labour party was pretty shoddy and cowardly. But the Communists’ “class against class” stance, which branded all of Labour as “social fascist”, made cooperation with even the most left wing members difficult.
The 60 or so Communists had little influence in the unions. So when the union leaders decided not to call strikes there wasn’t much the RWG could do about it. Importantly, though, young women workers in Belfast Mills did strike in support of the unemployed riots, despite the union leaders.
The Communists argued that the unemployed struggle was for “bread and independence”. That overstated the situation—but it had the potential to become that.
The brutal sectarianism of the Northern Irish state couldn’t be defeated in a few days. But the relief strike showed the power of a force that could defeat it—militant, united workers’ action.