October 2012        

Eighty years ago

The Shankill and the Falls fight together!


This October sees the eightieth anniversary of one of the most intense class struggles in the Six Counties, distinguished by the unique scenes of Catholic and Protestant workers fighting together on the barricades.
     The background was the crisis of capitalism, beginning with what was termed the Wall Street Crash of 1929, leading on to a worldwide depression over the next decade. As with today, the ruling classes tried to protect capital by making working people bear the brunt through mass unemployment, wage cuts, and the scrapping of any meagre social protection.
     In the developed economies of western Europe and the United States the crisis was unprecedented, as banks collapsed and industries closed, leaving even large sections of the middle class impoverished. In the United States, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Woody Guthrie’s ballads captured the plight and the resistance of ordinary working families thrown on the dust-heap. In Britain the Hunger Marches became the symbol of that generation’s right to work.
     All over Ireland, with the safety valve of emigration turned off, deprivation and hardship were widespread. Unlike today, there was no automatic dole or other supplementary benefits. In the North, whatever “relief” there was was determined by the Poor Law guardians, infused with the Victorian philosophy that the poor would always be with us; so you had to work for any relief, with a bit of Christian charity to avoid actual starvation. The “natural order” they maintained was expressed in the old hymn that went, “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate.”
     Both parts of the country had seen continuous agitation by the unemployed, but with the dramatic loss of jobs in the Belfast industries a new element was added. An essential part of unionism was maintaining an all-class alliance, using sectarian and anti-Catholic bigotry to maintain its hegemony. Jobs, particularly the skilled ones, were selectively issued to Protestants.
     The pogroms in the shipyards at the founding of the Stormont state diminished the numbers of Catholic workers (which also included the chasing out of Protestant trade union activists) and consolidated the unequal distribution of jobs. With the depression, the shipyards and their allied industries contracted massively. Stormont could no longer deliver to loyalist working-class supporters.
     The immediate cause of the dramatic unrest in October 1932 was the numbers thrown into exceptional misery and forced to rely on relief—small cash payments for married men compelled to do outdoor work schemes or to exist on food parcels. It was “starve slowly or resist.” The official labour movement opposed any direct action and urged people to wait for a Labour majority to be elected to the Board of Guardians.
     Considering that forty years later the same unionist state could not even concede the moderate civil rights demands, it could hardly have given in to demands of such a social movement in the 1930s.
     Proposed cuts in relief saw the unemployed resistance grow to mass proportions as people gathered to vent their anger and discuss a fight back. From their ranks they selected their leadership, worked out demands and the organisational forms to involve wider support.
     The groundwork had been laid and a lead had been given by the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups, which had been founded in Dublin in 1930. In co-operation with other left forces, north and south, they immediately saw mass unemployment as a central issue in organising resistance. Building on the earlier work of the Irish National Unemployed Movement, they helped set up the Outdoor Relief Workers’ Committee.
     They knew they faced a formidable task, as earlier demonstrations in 1931 had been smashed by the RUC, with some brutality. Among those arrested and manhandled then was Captain Jack White, founder of the Irish Citizen Army in 1913. The immediate demands were for better pay and working conditions, under trade union rates, the extension of the relief scheme to single persons, and an end to payment in kind. The committee elected Tommy Geehan, an unemployed textile worker, as secretary. Geehan was a member of the RWG and, though in bad health with TB, an outstanding speaker and a born leader.
     When the Tory government decided to cut the rates, the ORWC called demonstrations in Belfast and the main towns. Spurred on by the large attendance and by the spread of support, the committee called a strike in October. Flying pickets of thousands patrolled the streets to ensure that the strike was upheld, and on the evening of Tuesday the 12th twenty thousand marched in Belfast.
     Though many reformists in the labour movement dragged their heels in organising solidarity, the Belfast Trades Council was pushed into calling a general strike by many of its affiliated unions.
     A mass meeting of three thousand workers in the linen mills declared for strike action. A public response brought in money and clothes as other towns in the North joined in. Workers gathered around bonfires in their localities to hear their leaders and assess tactics.
     With never-changing monotony, the unionist establishment relied on force and repression to break the people’s resistance. However, workers in both Catholic and Protestant ghettoes stood their ground against armed police, as a contemporary account reports:
In the Falls and Shankill districts very fierce hand-to-hand battles ensued; while the police used their batons the workers used pick shafts and other weapons. Failing to intimidate and defeat the workers the police opened fire with rifles and revolvers. Workers fell to the ground, so badly wounded that they had to be removed to hospital; while others with lesser wounds were treated in the homes of comrades. Then the workers threw up barricades against the mounted police and the armoured cars, and bravely fighting from these barricades the workers repulsed the attacks . . .
     Working-class Belfast was a city in revolt, with Catholic and Protestant workers crossing their previous contested lines to help the weakest points of resistance.
     After days of rioting, armoured cars drove into the narrow streets to dismantle the barricades, and the British army, equipped with machine guns, strengthened the terror. Unbowed and undefeated, the strike movement continued in both communities, in spite of hundreds wounded by gunfire and other police weapons.
     Hundreds were arrested and beaten, but the supreme sacrifice was the death of two workers—a Catholic and a Protestant. As 100,000 people watched the funeral, the veteran British Labour leader Tom Mann, who came to speak, was arrested and deported under the Special Powers Act.
     The government, alarmed at the extent of the resistance, opened negotiations with the Trades Council and eventually agreed to an increase in relief, ranging from 15 to 150 per cent. The committee and the RWG claimed a victory as mass meetings accepted the terms. Class war had been fought, and won.
     The massive class unity achieved by both communities was not sustained. The state, alarmed at the split in the all-class bloc of unionist support, propelled the Orange Order to set up fake unemployed and workers’ organisations, and the Protestant ghettoes were inundated with Christian charities and Evangelical missions.
     For the ruling class, above all was the evil influence of the communists and concern “that some few of our loyal Protestant unemployed were misled to such an extent that they associated with the enemies of their faith and principles . . . the communist Sinn Féin element.”
     But the ruling elite had been frightened by the class unity of the outdoor relief struggle, and it used its rampant loyalist organisations to harass the left and stoke up sectarianism. In this it succeeded, as two years later, in 1935, the worst anti-Catholic pogroms since 1920–22 took place. Again this followed successful unemployed hunger marches and a united tenant rent strike uniting both communities. The RWG, reconstituted from 1933 as the Communist Party of Ireland, was in the midst all these struggles, and its members suffered beatings, mob violence, prison, and deportation.

And the lessons . . .

When any section of the working class feels that its interests are being undermined it will seek to create its own self-protection. In the case of the Protestant section of the Irish working class its advanced thinkers of the 1930s had to unlock illusions and the baggage of past prejudices.
     But this required a tremendous leap—as it does now. In 1932 the inspiration for the leap was supplied by Marxist militants. The need to unite on social issues politicised many thousands of Protestant workers.
     In addition to unity on class and social causes the general left have to give recognition to identity issues, such as culture, tradition, and heritage, which still hang like a fog on our divided and sectarian society.
     Eighty years ago many freed themselves from that fog. Perhaps none typify this better than the young unemployed millworker caught up in her first strike who went on to study in Moscow, held the secretaryship of the Belfast Trades Council for more than twenty years, and was the first chairperson of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. That young woman was, of course, Betty Sinclair.
[TR]

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