08 October 2005

Remembering the Past: Protestant and Catholic workers united

An Phoblacht


In 1932 the workers of Belfast when put out of jobs quickly exhausted entitlement to the 'bureau' (dole), and were forced to turn to the Poor Law. The Belfast Board of Guardians applied the old workhouse test with rigor. Nothing was given until savings had been exhausted and relief was in the form of groceries obtained by 'chits' from named shops and successful applicants were humiliated by having their names posted on gable walls. Those in receipt of 'outdoor relief' had to work to receive benefit. Some unemployed married men were given work on corporation schemes such as repairing roads to get their dole.

By 1932 about 2,000 men were on this scheme, earning from 8 to 24 shillings a week for those with four or more children.

During 1932 an organisation called the Revolutionary Workers' Groups, composed of elements from all political groups and communities, carried on a broad agitation among the relief workers and were able to organise the Outdoor Relief Workers' Committee. It was composed of elected delegates from the various relief works and trade union branches. On 30 September at a mass meeting of 2,000 relief workers the decision to strike was endorsed and the following demands adopted:

o Abolition of task work.

o Increase in scale of relief to following rates: Man 15s 3d per week, wife 8s per week, each child 2s per head.

o No payment in kind — all relief to be paid in cash.

o Street improvement work under the Exceptional Distress Relief scheme, or schemes of like character, to be done at trade union rate of wages and adequate outdoor allowances to all single men and women who are unemployed and not in receipt of unemployment benefit.

The date set for the strike was 3 October 1932, and on that day 20,000 workers demonstrated in support of the strikers. The mayor and the board of guardians invited representatives of the Relief Workers' Committee to meet for a discussion. Several small concessions were offered and rejected by the workers.

On 8 October, the Relief Workers' Committee organised a house-to-house collection of money and food to establish a food depot to supply the strikers. They collected over £300 and food for the strikers.

On 9 October, mass meetings were held which resulted in the decision by the working women of the textile mills to demonstrate on 11 October. The government prohibited the meeting on 10 October and drafted in an extra 800 police from other districts to bolster numbers to 4,000 armed policed.

In spite of these elaborate preparations to smash the pickets, the unemployed came onto the streets on the morning of 11 October. However the government came up with a strategy to beat the strikers. Instead of firing indiscriminately at both Catholics and Protestants, the RUC were told to only shoot at Catholic areas. The Orange card was being played. The strikers were told that 'the IRA were using the ODR strike as a cover to overthrow Protestant rights'. The police attacked with batons, and in areas where they could not disperse the demonstrators, they opened fire. Two workers were killed and over 100 were seriously injured. The two workers killed were John Geegan of Millfield and Samuel Baxter of Regent Street,

Throughout the day Protestant and Catholic workers fought side by side and ran from district to district helping and encouraging one another. This was the feature of the events that most worried the Belfast Telegraph: "It was significant that for once the religious question did not enter into the trouble. Youths from Protestant areas were to be found in Catholic districts and vice versa."

The unity of workers and unemployed, men and women, Protestant and Catholic was sealed with blood. As well as two men killed, about 100 workers were wounded by rifle fire. The workers had only stones to defend themselves, yet it took the police all day to combat the resistance. Seventy workers were arrested, and others were made repair the street damage at gun point.

An Phoblacht, edited by Frank Ryan at the time welcomed the unity of Catholic and Protestant in the face of a common enemy:

"Belfast in revolt. Workers shot down by police. As we go to press there is a fierce conflict in progress. Already there has been one striker killed and many wounded by gunfire. All the signs of revolution are there: barricades, trenches, and at last organisation." — An Phoblacht, 15 October 1932.

By 6am the next morning, a police cordon was thrown around the city and no one was allowed to leave or enter Belfast. But the unbreakable solidarity of the workers, and especially the heroic struggle against the armed police, forced the Board of Guardians to announce a new scale of relief.

The concessions won by a united front of the working class were:

o A man and wife were entitled to 2.5 days of work at 20 shillings per week.

o A man and wife with three or four children were entitled to 3.5 days and 28 shillings per week.

o A man and wife with over four children were entitled to four days work per week at 32 shillings per week.

The Relief Workers' Committee accepted the terms. The General Secretary of the RWC Gehan announced: "What we have achieved gives the direct lie and contradictions to those who said the workers of Belfast could not be united and would not fight. They had seen Protestants and Catholics marching together on, and on Tuesday, fighting together."

The funeral of victims of police brutality was attended by over 10,000 workers, and another 100,000 were reported to have lined the streets. The policed again mobilised for the occasion and accompanied the funeral procession with armoured cars, but no violence erupted.

The Belfast events of October 1932 showed that it is possible for workers of both communities to stand shoulder to shoulder against the injustices of the ruling classes.


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