The Belfast Relief Strike – Class Unity In A Divided City by Alex McGuigan

The 1932 Belfast Relief Strike is a significant chapter in the history of class struggle in Ireland, as for a short time the sectarian divisions in the north of Ireland’s largest city were overtaken by working-class solidarity against the state. The partitioned state-let of ‘Northern Ireland’ was based on a sectarian headcount which guaranteed the Unionist party ruled the six counties as a de facto one party government. With the help of organisations like the Orange Order, the ruling-class managed to regularly, if not seasonally, foment sectarian strife as a bulwark against cross-denominational proletarian unity.

Welfare Benefits Attacked!

Unlike Britain and indeed the southern Free State, the northern Unionist state-let retained the draconian Victorian Poor Laws, which similar to today’s regimes in the north east and south of Ireland, effectively punished the jobless. By the early 1930’s following the global depression, primarily caused by the Wall Street Crash, a large section of the proletariat were dependent on the extremely meagre welfare benefits of the day called Outdoor Relief, where in effect the unemployed had to work for mere subsistence benefits, even more draconian than today’s ‘Workfare’ trend. In the south, jobless workers had formed the Irish Unemployed Workers Movement. Elsewhere in Europe including Britain, unemployed workers were organising themselves against  crippling austerity measures.

Outdoor Relief Workers Committee

In response to the crippling austerity measures the Outdoor Relief Workers Committee was formed in Belfast in 1932 by the most class conscious of the jobless workers. Their basic demands were:

  • The end of task work.
  • A rise in relief payments to males to l5 shillings 3d per week and an increase for wives to 8 shillings and 2 Shillings per child
  • An end to “payments in kind”. All ODR payments to be in cash.
  • Trade union rates to be paid for street improvement schemes and other ODR schemes
  • All single unemployed men and women who are not in receipt of unemployment benefit to be paid adequate welfare benefits

The Outdoor Relief Class Struggle

In October 1932, 7,000 jobless workers marched on the Lisburn Road Work House headquarters of the Poor Law Guardians (where part of Belfast City Hospital is situated  now.) Heavily armed RUC men were by now attempting to repress the Outdoor Relief Workers Committee but the marchers managed to disrupt the Workhouse’s draconian regime. Rioting against the RUC and the Unionist establishment spread throughout the city in early October. A rent strike was called as organised jobless workers grew in confidence. Accordingly the RUC and British army were deployed on the class strife torn streets of Belfast, attempting to repress the Outdoor Relief Workers Committee’s actions.

After the RUC and British army broke up a mass jobless workers’ demonstration, rioting became even more intense with both the proletariat of the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road uniting to fight the armed uniformed shock-troops of the ruling Unionist establishment! True to form the RUC murdered 2 demonstrators, including Protestants who had travelled to the Falls to man the barricades and attempted to prevent emergency relief food parcels sent by the trades unions. Over 50 strikers were seriously injured by the RUC, including many Protestant workers, although it must be said that the RUC were at their most vicious when attempting to put down the strike in Catholic areas.

Partial Victory and Ruling Class Foment Sectarian Divisions

The striking workers won an increase in welfare benefits for married couples and achieved a partial victory. Unfortunately benefits for single persons was not achieved and the leaders of the strike came in for heavy criticism for settling for much less than their full demands. Belfast Trades Council had half-heartedly threatened a General Strike but this did not reach fruition. The Unionist ruling-class, as was their modus operandi, attempted to play their habitual ‘Orange Card’ attempting to divide the militant proletariat along sectarian lines and were partially successful.

Proletarian Unity Proved Sectarianism Was Not Monolithic

The Belfast Relief Strikes, although short lived, prove that class solidarity can transcend sectarian divisions in the north of Ireland given the correct circumstances. A lesson for contemporary Irish Republican Socialists, the ‘Left’, anti-imperialists and progressives is that forced austerity measures and especially cuts in welfare benefits proved to be the catalyst during the cross-denominational class solidarity of 1932. Likewise, organised jobless workers became the most militant element during the events of 1932 and fought hand to hand against the armed wing of the state.

Although brief, the Belfast Relief Strikes of 1932 are an example of sectarianism being cast aside in the necessity of class struggle and it can happen again. With the current Westminster, Stormont, Leinster House  and indeed global offensive against ordinary working-class people, workers of all lands will indeed unite, as there will, inevitably, be literally nothing to lose but our chains…

strike03

Socialists from the Shankill Road attend the annual Bodenstown commemoration during the era of the Left wing Republican Congress in 1934

Alex McGuigan,
Belfast
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