Each morning the striking Belfast postal workers have gathered in Custom House Square. The last time Protestant and Catholic workers marched together through the Falls and Shankill and rallied outside the Custom House was in 1932.
Recession hit Belfast particularly hard that year because of the city’s dependence on shipbuilding orders from around the world. There was hardly a household which had not been hit by sackings and unemployment.
Some unemployed married men were given work on corporation schemes to pay their dole. The unemployed workers demanded an end to task work, an increase in payment and an end to payment in kind. They demanded all outdoor work be paid at the full trade union rate.
On 3 October, not only did 2,000 relief workers refuse to work, but 20,000 joined them on the demonstration through the Falls and the Shankill roads that finished outside the Custom House. Bands from both communities came on the march. The only neutral tune both sides knew was “Yes We Have No Bananas”. As the march went through the Falls and Shankill the tune was played again and again.
The paper Irish Worker’s 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.”
The Northern Ireland government tried to crush the movement. It declared the next demonstration illegal and issued 4,000 rifles to the police.
The massive march went ahead and was fiercely attacked by the police. Workers responded by defending themselves, ripping up paving stones, building barricades and digging trenches to block the armoured cars.
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 the Catholic areas they fired guns and in the Protestant areas they used baton charges. Throughout the day Protestant and Catholic workers fought side by side and ran from district to district helping and encouraging one another.
Two men were killed, and about 100 workers were wounded by rifle fire, but the attempt to repress the movement backfired, creating even greater determination and solidarity among the workers of Belfast. When the funerals took place, tens of thousands marched and all of working class Belfast turned out to line the streets.
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 they had won an increase from 8 shillings to 20 shillings a week.
A leader of the unemployed, the communist 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. First of all they saw Protestant and Catholic workers marching together, and Tuesday they saw them fighting together. The terms now offered constituted a magnificent victory.”
As one postal worker outside the Custom House said last week, “Today we still don’t have any bananas.”