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An inspiration and a warning from Belfast

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Issue 2576
Barricades went up all over the city
Barricades went up all over the city

Seán Mitchell has written a riveting account of the 1932 Outdoor Relief Riots in Belfast.

A small group of Communist activists led a mass movement that broke through sectarian divisions and shook the Northern Ireland state to its foundations.

This meticulously researched and readable account shines a light on the history—and draws sharp lessons for today.

By 1932 unemployment in Belfast stood at 40 percent as the Great Depression hit the shipbuilding and linen industries. The archaic Poor Laws, abolished years previously in Britain, were still in force in Northern Ireland. They forced people to do manual work on Outdoor Relief schemes, building roads and other public works to get a pittance from the Poor Law Guardians.

Discrimination in employment and housing, designed to weld Protestant workers to their Unionist employers, didn’t protect them. Yards and factories closed and spending on public services was slashed.

Communist activists in small Revolutionary Workers Groups (RWG) set out to organise a strike of Outdoor Relief workers to demand an increase in pay. Seán provides a vivid portrayal of the agitation, the open-air meetings and marches with reports from eyewitnesses and newspaper accounts.

On the morning of 11 October, unemployed workers gathered in their thousands in every corner of the city to march on the Guardians’ meeting. The Unionist government had banned the march and police attacked every gathering point.

They reserved their worst violence for Catholic areas, opening fire with revolvers and rifles on the mainly Catholic Falls Road.

Marchers on the mainly Protestant Shankill Road nearby rioted as soon as they heard.


In two days of fierce fighting, which spread across the city, they built barricades and fought police.

The government, terrified of the scale of the rebellion, caved in, and made the Guardians concede almost all the strikers’ demands.

The inspirational story is worth retelling to counter the dominant narrative of Northern Ireland as consisting of two warring tribes where class politics do not apply.

But Seán also looks squarely at the fact that the unity the riots created was destroyed by sectarian rioting and pogroms against Catholics in the summer of 1935.

Heroic RWG leaders such as Tommy Geehan had a crucial weakness in their politics. They assumed that joint struggle over economic questions would be enough to destroy sectarianism.

But the state and ultra-Loyalist movements rapidly mobilised to break the unity. Demanding that “Protestants employ Protestants”, they diverted despair over unemployment towards getting Catholics thrown out of work.

Seán deftly illustrates how both class struggle and sectarianism among workers grow out of the same soil.

A socialist movement has to confront sectarian division to stop it reappearing as it did with a vengeance in 1935.

This excellent book is an important contribution to socialist politics in Northern Ireland, where sectarian division is still locked into the political framework.

Struggle or Starve—Working Class Unity in Belfast’s 1932 Outdoor Relief Riots
Seán Mitchell, Haymarket Books, £14.99

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