Belfast 1932


What can we learn from this?

Exploring what happened in 1932 gives us an opportunity to reflect on the nature of political protest in Northern Ireland, in the past and today.

Here you can access further information and resources to encourage discussion and reflection on these questions.

What causes and ideas bring our communities together?

How can ordinary people effect real political change?

Is sectarianism as powerfully divisive today as it has been in the past?

Key Characters

Key characters in the events of 1932 (by Seán Mitchell)

Richard Dawson Bates

Born in 1876, Richard Dawson Bates was a key figure in the development of the Ulster Unionist movement. A one-time secretary of the Ulster Unionist Council and later an MP for the Victoria ward in East Belfast, he was made the Minister of Home Affairs by then Prime Minister James Craig. Dawson Bates was a key protagonist in the events of 1932 and played a key role in the government crackdown on the unemployed movement. He remained as Minister until 1943, and died in the summer of 1949.

Jack Beattie

Born into a Presbyterian family in East Belfast in 1886, Jack Beattie was a towering figure in the history of the Labour movement in Belfast. A founding member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, he was the sole NILP MP at Stormont (for Pottinger). Beattie played a pivotal role in the events of 1932. Famously, when the government refused to debate the unemployment problem, he smashed a mace and was ejected from parliament. He later quit the NILP and was elected as an MP for West Belfast as an independent Labour candidate. He died in a private nursing Home in 1960.

Tommy Geehan

Born in 1902, Tommy Geehan was active in politics in Belfast from his late teens, and was a member of both the Republican movement and the Labour party for a period. In 1930 he joined the Communist movement and was a founding member of the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups. He was both the key organiser of the unemployed movement in 1932 and its chief orator. ‘With a mere gesture of a raised hand,’ according to one reporter, ‘he could still to silence a wild and angry tumult.’ Subsequent to his role in the ODR dispute, he acquired the nickname ‘Molotov’. He resigned from the communist movement in 1938, and died in 1964.

Harry Midgley

Harry Midgley was founding member of the NILP and a leading figure in the Labour movement for many years. In 1932 he was a councillor for the NILP in the Dock ward in Belfast. He spoke against the Unionist government’s role in the unemployment crisis, and even went as far as to publicly challenge a Unionist Party rival to an electoral contest. He was much less keen on communist agitation, however, and insisted that the route to change was the ballot box. He later quit the NILP to form the Commonwealth Labour Party, and subsequently became a government minister for the Unionist Party. He died in in 1957 while still in office.

Betty Sinclair

Born in 1910, Sinclair was a communist from the Ardoyne area of Belfast. She worked in the mills and became politically active in 1932 when she joined the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups (later the Communist Party of Ireland). Her first political activity came during the Outdoor Relief Strike in 1932. She gave her first ever speech during this period and was one of the few women involved in the leadership of the strike. Later, she became the secretary of the Belfast Trades Council and a leading figure in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement. She died in a house fire in 1981.

Learning Activities

Here you can download ideas for group learning activities for schools and community groups.

Downloadable PDFs

Eyewitness Perspectives Imagine you are... A Glorious Victory? Poems by Robert Atkinson Poems by Thomas Carnduff

Discussion and reflection on the events of 1932 may touch on potentially divisive issues. You can find advice on creating a positive and inclusive learning environment here:

Teaching Controversial Issues, CCEA

Teachers may also be interested in joining the following professional networks:

Teaching Divided Histories

Facing Our History: Shaping Our Future

Video Gallery

Excerpts from 1932 - The People of Gallagher Street

Additional Resources

The following publications have been invaluable in the development of this online exhibition:

Struggle or Starve: Working-Class Unity in Belfast’s 1932 Outdoor Relief Riots by Sean Mitchell (2016) Haymarket Books -

Yes We Have No Bananas: Outdoor Relief in Belfast 1920-39 by Paddy Devlin (1981) Blackstaff Press

The March of Labour: Days of October: the Story of the 1932 Outdoor Relief Strike and Unemployed Struggles by Denis Smyth (c1982) Portlight Press

Belfast in the Thirties: an Oral History by Ronnie Munck and Bill Rolston (1987) Blackstaff PressSongs of an Out-of-Work by Thomas Carnduff (1932) Quota Press

Idle Hours: Belfast Working-Class Poetry by Robert Atkinson and Robert Atkinson Junior (1993) Island Publications

Primary sources on the subject are held in the following public archives:

Public Records Office of Northern Ireland

  • Cabinet papers relating to the provision of Outdoor Relief in Belfast
  • Ministry of Home Affairs records relating to policing of the Outdoor Relief Workers’ Strike
  • Ministry of Labour records relating to Distress Relief
  • Belfast Corporation/County Borough Council, correspondence between
    the Lord Mayor and the Town Clerk’s office relating to the Relief of Distress
  • Records of Belfast Board of Guardians

Belfast Central Library

  • Holds bound volumes or microfiche copies of local newspaper

National Museums of Northern Ireland

  • The Unemployed Workers’ Union Drum is on display in the Modern History Gallery of the Ulster Museum
  • The online photographic catalogue includes images illustrating life in Belfast in the 1930s