The Outdoor Relief Workers’ Strike brought working-class Protestants and Catholics together. During the strike the usual divisions didn’t seem to apply and the government had to listen.
Because the strikers succeeded in getting their demands met, their lives quickly went back to normal. The usual divisions were re-established.
Looking back, we balance recurring sectarianism against moments of unity. One does not negate the other. We can use the story of the strike to consider important questions for today.
Image: © Jonathan Porter for Presseye, 2012
What causes and ideas bring us together?
How can ordinary people bring about change?
Is sectarianism as divisive today as it was in the past?
Image: Children drinking milk supplied by Belfast Central Mission during the Outdoor Relief Workers’ Strike (image courtesy of Belfast Central Mission).
After initial success, the sense of togetherness and power didn’t last long. Although Harry Midgley became the second Labour MP in 1933, Tommy Geehan didn’t get elected when he ran for council. Relief rates were cut again. The Catholic Church and Protestant churches kept condemning strike action. Sectarian and anti-communist vigilante group the Ulster Protestant League became more active, and 1933 saw the first sectarian killing since 1922. Sectarian violence intensified in 1935.
Image: Soldiers with fixed bayonets on York Street during riots on 13th July 1935 (© AP Photo/Bead).
In 1932 society was powerfully shaped by sectarianism and class interests. This makes the coming together of working-class Catholics and Protestants to fight for better treatment all the more remarkable. It was a moment when people sidestepped the sectarian norm. It was a moment when mass activism made a difference.
Image: Volunteers at Belfast Central Mission prepare food parcels for the poor. Reverend John Spence is in the foreground. Unusually for a clergyman, he actively supported the Outdoor Relief Workers’ Strike (image courtesy of Belfast Central Mission).
It wasn’t a matter of looting; it was confiscation.
We deplore that these unfortunate conditions were used as a cloak by the Communist Sinn Fein element to attempt to start a revolution in our province.
Statement by Ulster Protestant League, issued 15th October 1932
I rapped on the door and I asked the people [for food]… The dockers were very good to us.
It was possible to live inBelfast without knowing much about it.
If they were so sincere working together, how the hell were they broke up?
I just wanted an improvement in the system. I never thought of changing the system.
The people were shoulder to shoulder for one thing... A united Ireland was the last thing they thought of.
An absolute reign of terror prevailed while the police were in the streets.
Irish News and Belfast Morning News, 14th October 1932
[D]eplorable scenes and acts of lawlessness… [N]o one with any sense of loyalty or decent-mindedness… can excuse them.
Reverend John McCaffrey, in Belfast Telegraph, 17th October 1932
Quotes from Munck and Rolston, Belfast in the Thirties.
Today there are lots of opinions on what the strike meant. Most people are interested in the way Protestants and Catholics joined together to protest. Given current economic problems, others are interested in the fact that it happened during a terrible recession. Some think the togetherness has been exaggerated.
Unity does not have to be exaggerated to be recognised and valued. Knowing that this happened in the past can affect how we think about the present and the future.
Here the goal of working class solidarity is no leftwing Utopian dream, it has existed before, and in living memory, and there is no reason why it will not happen again.
Denis Smyth, The March of Labour: Days of October: the Story of the 1932 Outdoor Relief Strike and Unemployed Struggles, Portlight Press, 1982, p5
[The government] recognised… when the smoke had blown away, the absolute necessity of returning immediately to the sectarian tactics of the early Twenties… to reassert control over the situation.
Paddy Devlin, Yes We Have No Bananas: Outdoor Relief in Belfast 1920-39, Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1981, p136
Sectarian relations were so “normal” in Belfast that they broke through to the surface.
Ronnie Munck and Bill Rolston, Belfast in the Thirties: an Oral History, Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1987, p37