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1907 Belfast strike showed the power to end the sectarian divide

This article is over 17 years, 2 months old
The 1907 Belfast strike wave showed the possiblity of unity between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, writes Simon Basketter
Issue 2051
Strike poster
Strike poster

Much was made last week of the politicians of Northern Ireland coming together apparently to bring peace. But 100 years ago, there was a far more inspiring and grassroots example of people coming together in Ireland, which is rarely written about in the mainstream press.

Protestant and Catholic workers united to fight for their rights and used militant trade unionism to break down the sectarian divisions that had been fostered by the British state.

Belfast was central to the industry of the British Empire in 1907. Talk of home rule for Ireland was in the air. The employers were using the Unionist Orange Order to promote loyalty to king and country.

The trade union organiser James Larkin arrived in Belfast on 20 January to organise the dockers and carters of the city into a union.

They had been divided along sectarian lines, with huge variations in working hours and pay.

Protestant workers were employed on the cross channel docks where work was regular.

Catholics worked on the deep sea docks where employment was less regular and workers had to join a “cattle market” to acquire the tokens to get access to work.

All were working long hours in unsafe conditions for poor pay. By April, almost 3,000 dockers had joined the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL). The Belfast union branch organised both Protestant and Catholic workers.

A strike wave began when men at Kelly’s coal quay were sacked for trying to join the union.

On 9 May the locked-out coalmen from Kelly’s Yard attacked scabs unloading coal at the docks.

They overpowered the harbour police and forced the scabs to retreat under a hail of “shipyard confetti” – rivets and lumps of coal.

The boss granted union recognition and wage increases from 6d (2.5p) to 5 shillings (25p) a week. The coal workers had won. That same week, 144 dockers went on strike against the use of non-union labour at the Belfast Steamship Company.

When the workers attempted to return to work, they found that the employers’ Shipping Federation had replaced them with scabs.

One of the owners of the dock companies was the industrialist Thomas Gallaher. When seven women were sacked for attending a street meeting addressed by Larkin at Gallaher’s tobacco plant, 1,000 workers walked out.

Gallaher complained, “The origin of the whole business is, I think, due to the uprising of socialism.”

Intense militancy

James Larkin said with contempt, “Although St Patrick [the patron saint of Ireland] was credited with banishing snakes, there was one he forgot and that was Gallaher.”

The carters refused to handle anything moved by scabs. Over 1,000 of them joined the strike.

The first scab horse and cart to leave the docks was met by 3,000 strikers and supporters – it moved no further.

By the end of June, thousands of dockers and carters had been called out on strike. The militancy of the workers was intense. Shipyard workers burnt company vans and attacked the police with stones.

In the docks, the scabs had to work behind lines of hundreds of police, and were billeted on board the SS Caloric ship. Strikers hired boats and mounted a seaborn assault on the ship. It had to be moored out in the middle of Belfast Lough each night for safety.

The strike was causing concern among the right wing British TUC leaders. From mid-July, leaders of various unions and the TUC began arriving in Belfast.

Their aim was to bring the strike to an end. The leaders of the coal workers and the ironmongers moved first. They ignored the wishes of their striking members and settled with the bosses over the strikers’ heads.

In Britain and the rest of Ireland, workers joined demonstrations to support the Belfast workers.

Dockers in many ports refused to handle goods diverted from Belfast. A national dockers’ and carters’ strike could have been organised in Britain and Ireland which would have brought the bosses to their knees.

But the trade union leaders refused to organise sympathetic action.

The employers responded by deliberately trying to stoke up sectarianism. They locked out coal yard workers on the eve of 12 July, hoping that sectarian tensions would build up and help break the movement.

Walter Savage, an NUDL official, replied to these manoeuvres by saying that the bosses “have been trying all through this dispute to stir up the old spirit of bigotry and hatred that has kept the labouring classes of this great city so long under the heel of their masters and made them white slaves.

“What has Orangeism or Protestantism got to do with men fighting for just rights when the issue lies not in religion but is a question of bread and butter?”

Between 5,000 to 10,000 people attended daily strike meetings. Larkin, a Catholic, offered to hand over the leadership of the strike to a Protestant, Alex Boyd, to undermine the sectarian propaganda of the Orange Order.

Boyd proclaimed that sectarian tricks “would not be successful because men of all creeds are determined to stand together in fighting the common enemy who denied the right of workers to a fair wage”.

The Belfast trades council organised a demonstration on 26 July. The demonstration turned into a general strike and one of the biggest movements of the working class in the history of Belfast.

Police mutiny

The demonstration began in the city centre and marched through the Catholic and Protestant areas of Belfast. It ended at a mass rally of 200,000 outside the City Hall.

It was so large that four separate speakers’ platforms were erected around the City Hall.

Even the Royal Irish Constabulary was caught up in the unrest when constable William Barrett refused to sit beside a scab driver on a motor wagon.

Hundreds of police officers mutinied when Barrett was suspended. Over half of the force attended a protest rally.

Shockwaves ran through the ruling class. To stem the mutiny over 200 police were transferred out of the city and 6,000 troops were brought into Belfast.

On 1 August nine warships arrived in Belfast Lough. By Friday 2 August – a day before a police strike was due to begin – all the leaders of the mutiny had been transferred out of Belfast. Barrett was dismissed from the force and six others suspended.

On 3 August, Barrett spoke to a meeting of 5,000 people, mostly strikers. But the mutiny was petering out. On 11 August 3,200 police and troops poured into Catholic West Belfast.

They unleashed a reign of terror. Workers were beaten and intimidated. Homes were wrecked. The troops and police used batons and bayonets freely. They killed two workers in Divis Street and wounded countless more.

Britain and the Unionists had constantly tried to trap the movement in the snare of sectarianism.

Fred Crawford, a key Unionist Party figure, said, “What a blessing all the rioting took place in the Catholic quarter of the city. This branded the whole thing a Nationalist movement.”


Philip Snowdon, a future Labour chancellor, condemned those who rioted as coming from “that portion of the Belfast population that is almost as accustomed to rioting as a savage tribe is to constant warfare”.

The Catholic hierarchy also criticised the strike wave, fearing it would lose its power base.

The Catholic church and Joe Devlin, the Nationalist leader, attacked “Larkinism” and denounced the strike. Arthur Griffith, the Sinn Fein leader, condemned the strike as “the English disease”.

But Protestant workers rushed to the aid of their Catholic brothers and sisters. They flooded into the Falls to defend the area in case of a repeat of the police and military attacks.

The strike committee put up posters all over the city. They read, “Men of Belfast don’t be misled.

“The employers of Belfast and the authorities are trying to make the present disturbances a party matter, for they know that if they can get Protestants and Catholics to fight they can beat the workers.”

But the strike was ultimately defeated, not by sectarianism but by the cowardice of the union leaders.

Officials at the national headquarters of the dockers’ union tried to marginalise Larkin. The coal merchants’ lockout ended with workers going back without securing a closed shop.

By the end of August 1907, the dockers and carters were back at work.When the union leaders demanded the dockers return to work, they found that their jobs had been filled.

The defeat of the strike wave laid the seeds of the Unionist counter-revolt of 1911-12.

The whipping up of Orange reaction to home rule led to half a million people signing Carson’s Covenant in defence of the Union, and the setting up of the Ulster Volunteer Force.

The effect on the workers’ movement was disastrous. In 1912, 3,000 workers were forced out of the shipyards, including 600 Protestants victimised for their left wing sympathies.

Despite the defeat, Larkin’s militant tactics showed that class struggle created the conditions to undermine sectarianism.

Larkinism connected with the immediate struggles of workers. As long as working class confidence grew, Larkin could hold the movement together.

But the weakness was that strike leaders argued that the movement was “above politics” or “non-political”.

This meant that with the the first shift towards defeat, Larkinism was incapable of instilling the ideas necessary in the workers’ movement to stand up to reactionary pressures.

The 1907 strike showed that class unity could be forged by workers’ action. But to make that unity last through the ups and downs of industrial struggle, more than militant unionism was needed.

As Larkin put it, “Why use one arm when we have two? Why not strike the enemy with both arms – the political and economic?”

Solidarity, stoppages and absolute opposition to the bosses and to sectarianism are as necessary today as in 1907. So is the need to use both arms in the fight against the bosses and their attempts to divide us.

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