The Belfast Relief Strike - Class War in a Divided City

Updated on July 22, 2019
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The author is a QUB Political Science honors graduate and has written on a variety of related issues.

A public meeting during the Belfast Relief strikes of 1932
A public meeting during the Belfast Relief strikes of 1932

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

Welfare Benefits Attacked
Unlike Britain and indeed the then southern Free State, the northern Unionist dominated state-let retained the draconian Victorian Poor Laws, a Malthusian social welfare policy which effectively punished those unfortunate enough to be unemployed or unable to work. By the early 1930s, 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 known as Outdoor Relief. This provision coerced the unemployed to work for the most basic of subsistence welfare benefits, it was much more draconian than even today's 'Workfare' trend in social policy. In the south of Ireland, jobless workers had formed the Irish Unemployed Workers Movement in an effort to combine against similar crippling welfare benefits provided for those without jobs and unable to emigrate to the UK or the USA. Elsewhere in Europe, including Britain, unemployed workers were organising themselves against crippling austerity measures and the ravages of laissez-faire capitalism.

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 simple, quite moderate and included the following:

  • The end of task work.
  • A rise in relief payments for 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 Belfast City Hospital is situated now). Heavily armed RUC officers, the local paramilitary police force, were by now attempting to repress the Outdoor Relief Workers Committee but the marchers managed to disrupt the internal prison-like order of the hated Workhouse's draconian regime. Rioting against the RUC and the Unionist ruling class establishment spread throughout the city in early October 1932. A rent strike was called as organised jobless workers grew in confidence. Accordingly, the RUC and the British army were deployed on the class strife-torn streets of Belfast, attempting to crush the Outdoor Relief Workers Committee's actions.

After the RUC and British army broke up a mass jobless workers' demonstration in the city centre, rioting became even more intense. The proletariat of both the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road united to fight the armed uniformed shock-troops of the ruling Unionist establishment. This rare show of working-class unity was something that would have been unthinkable only a decade earlier following the intense state-sponsored pogroms against the Catholic community in Belfast. For the Unionist Stormont regime, who relied upon sectarian division to retain power, the prospect of a united, militant working-class was their greatest fear.

During the protests, the RUC killed two demonstrators and injured scores more, including Protestants from the Shankill area. Many had travelled to the Falls Road area in solidarity to man the barricades as the police attempted to confiscate or destroy emergency relief food parcels sent by the trades unions. Over 50 strikers in all were seriously injured by the RUC, including many workers from what would have been seen as staunch Unionist areas. However, it must be said that the RUC were at their most vicious and lethal when attempting to put down the strike in Catholic areas in west Belfast.

Partial Victory and Ruling Class Foment Sectarian Divisions

The striking workers eventually won an increase in welfare benefits for married couples and achieved what was generally seen as a partial victory. Unfortunately, the provision of welfare 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. The Belfast Trades Council had half-heartedly threatened a General Strike but this did not reach fruition. The Unionist ruling-class, as was their habitual modus operandi, tried to play the 'Orange Card', in an attempt to divide the militant proletariat along sectarian lines and were later partially successful in this endeavour.

Working-class Unity Proved Sectarianism Was Not Monolithic

The Belfast Relief Strikes proved that class solidarity can transcend deep sectarian divisions in the north of Ireland, given the correct circumstances. The existence of a revolutionary socialist vanguard and fighting trade unions made the partial victory for the working-class possible. The Relief Strikes demonstrated that forced austerity measures, and especially cuts to already meagre welfare benefits, can be a catalyst for class solidarity, even in the north of Ireland's most divided city. Likewise, the organised jobless workers became the most militant element during the events of 1932 and fought hand to hand, irrespective of supposedly irreconcilable sectional differences, against the most repressive measures deployed by 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 survival

Hungry children of the strikers being fed  during the Outdoor Relief Workers' Strike.
Hungry children of the strikers being fed during the Outdoor Relief Workers' Strike.
The Belfast Telegraph announces the end of the strikes
The Belfast Telegraph announces the end of the strikes

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    © 2019 Liam A Ryan

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