Solidarity over sectarianism in Belfast

The book Struggle or Starve documents how the ruling class tries to divide the working class--and how the working class can resist, writes Moira Geary.

Workers pour into the streets of Belfast during the Outdoor Relief strike of 1932Workers pour into the streets of Belfast during the Outdoor Relief strike of 1932

IN STRUGGLE or Starve: Working-Class Unity in Belfast's 1932 Outdoor Relief Riots, Seán Mitchell, a founding member of People Before Profit, the left-wing coalition that has run in elections in both the North and South of Ireland since 2007, resurrects a historical treasure with valuable lessons about the struggle against colonialism, oppression and capitalism in Ireland--and is strikingly relevant to the situation in the U.S.

In 1932, in Belfast--the biggest city in the north of Northern Ireland, one marked by ongoing sectarian tension between Catholics and Protestants that frequently turned violent--workers from both sides of the divide united to fight the ruling class of employers, politicians and police loyal to the British crown and British capitalism.

The solidarity expressed between Catholic and Protestant workers led the communists at the organizational center of the movement to believe that sectarianism had been permanently smashed in Belfast.

But just three years after the strikers emerged victorious, the city was in such a state that reactionary Protestant forces felt emboldened to carry out pogroms against Catholics (and Protestants who associated with them), killing many and evicting thousands from their homes.

Mitchell not only paints a picture of the struggle that shows what solidarity can achieve, but offers rich details about what kinds of organization and action would have been necessary to carry the Outdoor Relief (ODR) strike and riots forward into a movement to permanently replace sectarianism with working-class unity, which could have posed a historical challenge to the Northern Irish state under British control.

Review: Books

Seán Mitchell, Struggle or Starve: Working-Class Unity in Belfast's 1932 Outdoor Relief Riots. Haymarket Books, 2017, 182 pages, $16.95.

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"OUTDOOR RELIEF" was a program to provide aid to unemployed workers that stemmed from the century-old "Indoor Relief," more commonly known as the "poor house" and governed by the British Poor Laws. Mitchell cites Frederick Engels' description of this horrendous system:

To make sure that Relief be applied for only in the most extreme cases and after every other effort had failed, the workhouse has been made the most repulsive residence which the refined ingenuity of a Malthusian can invent. The food is worse than that of the most ill-paid working-man while employed, and the work harder.

After the partition of Ireland in 1920, the Southern state banished workhouses, and Britain abandoned the system a few years later. But it remained in Northern Ireland, with the addition of Outdoor Relief, which didn't require admission into the workhouse.

However, the patronizing ruling-class Board of Guardians that administered the relief schemes "viewed themselves not as representatives of the poor but of the middle and upper classes--the ratepayers who has elected them," writes Mitchell.

The Great Depression, precipitated by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, had a disproportionately devastating impact on Northern Ireland, and Belfast in particular.

While the 1920s were a period of economic boom and expansion of industry for global capitalism as a whole, Belfast as the center of the shipbuilding and linen industries in Northern Ireland saw instead a continual influx of workers that kept unemployment high and wages low even as demand for goods remained stable.

Throughout the 1920s, more and more workers applied for Outdoor Relief. The Board of Guardians' responded by finding ways to restrict aid, and in 1928, they added the requirement of "task work" for relief recipients--a scheme to prove that the unemployed weren't "work-shy" by forcing them to perform grueling, superfluous unpaid labor on the city streets.

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MITCHELL PROVIDES a vivid description of the 1932 strike of those unemployed workers on Outdoor Relief, who were joined by other unemployed and employed workers, and led by small groups of communists called the Revolutionary Workers Groups (RWGs).

Thanks to archival research and firsthand accounts, the book is full of quotes and anecdotes from all sides of the struggle: strikers, the RWGs, the Comintern based in Moscow, the police, the Loyalist state and newspapers of various political leanings.

Several details of the struggle raised important questions about how to organize. Since ODR task work was superfluous to the functioning of the city and created for no other reason than to compel recipients of relief to work--like prisoners splitting boulders--the usual power of workers to cause a shutdown in production and a blow to profit didn't apply to the ODR strikers, since they weren't producing a good that capitalists need to sell.

Additionally, one of the demands of the strike was the abolition of task work itself, so how do you win a strike when your demand is the elimination of the very labor you are ceasing to perform in protest?

The key was solidarity. In order to have a chance of winning--or in fact to have any effect at all--the ODR strike would have to rely on mass mobilization, disruption and solidarity strike action by employed workers.

The strike lasted weeks and involved several rallies and marches of thousands of working-class people. Hundreds of unemployed single men entered the workhouse, causing major disruptions. Strikers voted twice to reject the Board of Guardians' lackluster offers and in favor of continuing to strike and hold out for their demands.

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AFTER THOSE first two offers "failed to stall the movement with concessions, the state decided to crush it through violence and repression," Mitchell writes.

When strikers planned a mass strike rally for October 10, the government announced that the event was banned under the Special Powers Act--a law enacted in 1922 allowing the state to suspend various freedoms and rights. The police started their provocation the night before the rally, patrolled the streets of Belfast, confiscating any materials that could be used to build bonfires.

These police were the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), a Loyalist force that incorporated "special" ranks made up of right-wing paramilitary groups that the government had invited to protect the state--and which, as Mitchell points out, Northern Ireland's own prime minister proudly claimed was "a fascist force in being."

The strikers and those in solidarity with them went ahead with the march, and the RUC responded by baton-charging the marchers, chasing them back into the streets where they lived and setting off a full-blown riot across the city.

In an attempt to reintroduce the sectarianism used to divide and rule the workers, the police practiced restraint in Protestant neighborhoods, but actively pursued, beat and murdered people in the Catholic streets. Mitchell quotes from an internal Communist Party document describing the events:

[T]here was a complete solidarity and interchange of speakers from the Protestant and Catholic areas. When actual fighting began it was undoubtedly heaviest in the Nationalist quarters...But the Government were not successful in isolating the fighting to the Nationalist areas--Shankill Road Unionist area was made a center of much of the fighting with the police.

The rioting continued for the better part of the week, with workers digging up streets and erecting barricades to prevent the police from staying in their armored cars, and smashing street lights so that they could roam freely at night when a curfew was imposed.

On Friday, "with the state of the city still in flux and the threat of a general strike on the horizon, the Unionist government finally 'found' the money to offer the unemployed a deal."

While it didn't meet all of their demands, the strikers voted to accept the deal and end the riots, lest the destruction continue and the pure firepower of the police eventually catch up to their superior solidarity and organization.

Mitchell points out that by the time the striking had turned to rioting, the official leadership of the movement in the RWGs had little involvement, although they defended the workers' right to the actions they took.

"The riots were not the result of a conspiracy on the part of a small group of communists," writes Mitchell, "they were the organic expression of deep anger building up inside of thousands of people, the conscious resistance of a class that would take no more."

However, this is not to understate the influence of organized communists' intervention to turn the struggle in the direction of solidarity. As Mitchell concludes:

In just three months, a small group of revolutionaries had built a mass movement that brought Belfast to a standstill, shaking the Unionist establishment to its core. It was an incredible achievement which, if nothing else, discredited the assumption that Catholics and Protestants would never unite.

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THE IMPORTANCE of the strike and riots is highlighted by what came before and after. In 1920, in the aftermath of a massive defeat of the labor movement and the partition of Ireland into two states, state-encouraged sectarianism led to pogroms where Loyalists drove thousands of workers out of their homes and from their jobs, killed 28, and wounded 1,766.

Again, just three years after the victorious ODR strike, thousands and Catholics and Protestant "sympathizers" were evicted from their homes and terrorized by Loyalist forces in 1935.

Mitchell proposes that instead of a total and drastic change in material conditions, the various strikes and alternating reactionary violence had the same underlying economic causes:

The truth is that the fundamental conditions underlying the deep anger fueling the riots were the same in 1935 as they had been in 1932--poverty, unemployment and a belief that the government was not providing for people...Ultimately, the crucial element that determined the manifest form of this anger--either as vicious sectarianism or as unity against the Unionist elite--was the intervention of organized political forces.

In the chapters that follow the vivid depiction of the ODR strike and riots, Mitchell outlines the various obstacles faced by the organized leadership and the shortcomings of the communists at the front of the movement, which led them to underestimate the importance of building solidarity among rank-and-file trade union members and of continuing to fight sectarianism after the riots ended.

Had their political conclusions been different, Mitchell argues, it might have been possible to prevent the wave of reaction that followed and continue building the working-class movement to greater victories.

The lesson of the ODR strike is that solidarity can overcome divisions like xenophobia, racism and sectarianism, but the ruling class will attempt to crush solidarity if it becomes a threat, and the reaction that comes afterward can amplify hardship even beyond the initial catalyst that prompted people to fight back.

Reading this case study and the essential political analysis presented alongside it provides us on the left with a lesson in the urgency and importance of political intervention here and now, and hope for the victory of the working class against seemingly insurmountable odds.