The Falls and the Shankhill united, Catholics and Protestants fighting together. That is the story of the Outdoor Relief Strike launched by the unemployed of Belfast in 1932.
It is important today not only because
it is a part of our history that has been denied space in the school books
but also because it was a living demonstration that the sectarian barrier
can be breached.
The Wall Street crash had hit the industrialised countries hard. Northern
Ireland was hit harder than most. Its two principal industries, textiles and
shipbuilding, took a hammering. Because the crisis was world wide the Stormont
government could not continue to export the unemployed. Up to 1931 10,000
a year had been sailing abroad in search of work. Now there were no jobs anywhere
and both Canada and the USA started to give 'one-way' tickets home to recent
immigrants who had not become citizens.
The Poor Laws had been scrapped in the South in 1924 and in Britain in 1928
but Stormont kept them in operation. This gave the jobless a very raw deal
and their numbers were rapidly growing. Out of one and a quarter million people
over a hundred thousand had seen their jobs disappear. Of these 42,710 were
getting benefit, 19,380 were on transitional benefit (which was reviewed every
three months) and 13,908 got no money at all. A further 24,000, mainly women
and young workers, were not even officially registered. And several thousand
others had their benefit reduced or stopped by the operation of the 'means
As the 'means test' increased the number of unemployed not getting any money
from the Labour Exchange, there was an increase in the number applying to
the Board of Guardians for 'outdoor relief'. These schemes employed married
men at tasks like road repairs for a wage of between eight and twenty four
shillings (40p-£1.20) depending on the number of children the man had.
To get onto this scheme a man had to submit to a rigorous investigation of
his circumstances. Such task work generally lasted six months with one to
three days work a week. At the time of the strike about 2,000 were employed
Everywhere the unemployed were organising. In the South the Irish Unemployed
Workers Movement was holding large demonstrations, at one meeting in Longford
in October 1,000 turned up to hear speakers from the Movement (including Jim
Gralton the only Irishman ever to be deported by a Dublin government). In
Britain the Hunger Marches were taking place alongside disruptions of political
banquets and invasions of factories to appeal for an end to overtime and speed-ups.
Against this background the Revolutionary Workers Groups had become active.
While the RWG's went on to form the Communist Party of Ireland it must be
remembered that Stalin's crimes were not widely known then and that it was
the only socialist organisation of note that was active.
They set about arguing for a fighting response to the dole queue and won a
certain respect from the unemployed. An Outdoor Relief Workers Committee was
set up and shortly after Tommy Geehan of the RWG, who was also a delegate
to the Belfast Trades Council, called for a strike by the ODR workers.
Almost all the 2,000 relief workers turned up to a mass meeting on September
30th and voted to strike in four days time if these demands were not met:
* Abolition of task work.
* Increase in relief payments to: Man l5s 3d per week, wife 8s and 2s for
* No payment in "kind" - all payments to be in cash.
* Street improvement work and other such schemes to be paid at trade union
* Adequate outdoor allowances for all single unemployed men and women who
are not in receipt of unemployment benefit.
Needless to say their demands were not conceded. On Monday October 3rd the
strike began and was 100% solid. That evening a crowd of 30,000 marched from
Frederick Street Labour Exchange to the Custom House steps where a mass meeting
was held. This was the first time since 1919 that workers had ignored the
bigots and united on class lines to fight for their own interests. Catholic
and Protestant made common cause against the ruling class.
The next morning 7,000 marched to the Lisburn Road workhouse where the Board
of Guardians usually met. The road, one of the main routes into the city,
was blocked for three hours. A delegation was received by the Guardians (after
threats of what would happen if they refused) but nothing was got from them
other than a letter to the government asking them to provide more relief.
On Wednesday October 5th the RUC prevented another march to the workhouse
by lining the route with Crossly tenders and Lancia armoured cars. Nevertheless
demonstrators got past the police lines and 144 were admitted to the workhouse
as inmates. Once inside they refused to obey orders and were reported singing
and dancing throughout the night. Three were arrested and removed from the
That night rioting broke out in several places. A tram was hijacked and dozens
of shops were looted in the main Catholic and Protestant areas. The RUC baton
charged the crowds as soon as they formed. The rioting continued for the rest
of the week.
The local ruling class and Unionist establishment suddenly realised the seriousness
of what was happening. They had nothing against rioting, they had organised
many anti-Catholic pogroms themselves. What was occurring on the streets was
very different, it was the one thing they feared - working class unity.
On Monday 10th the Lord Mayor, Sir Crawford McCullagh took representatives
of the Guardians into his parlour in City Hall to try to come up with concessions
that could kill the influence of the ODR Strike Committee. The night before
McCullagh had been visited by leading businessmen who urged him to do something
The offer put to the strikers was for more relief work plus extra pay for
extra time worked. At a mass meeting in St Mary's Hall the strikers turned
this down. They wanted full trade union rates of pay for all work done and
an increased rate on the ODR schemes.
A rent strike was called, bonfires lit in working class districts and speakers
from the strike committee addressed thousands. The city became like an armed
camp with thousands of police being called in. Tensions were running very
high. A special mass meeting of women was also held in St Mary's Hall where
they pledged to stand shoulder to shoulder with their men-folk in the coming
A huge demonstration was called for the following day (Tuesday 11th). The
government banned it under the notorious Special Powers Act and put the Royal
Enniskillen Fusiliers on stand by. The RUC were issued with rifles as well
as their usual revolvers. Tommy Geehan had predicted at the women's meeting
the previous night that no ban would stop the demonstration. "For many
years the workers of Belfast have been divided by artificial barriers of religion
and politics, but the past two months have witnessed a wonderful spectacle,
because the workers were united on a common platform demanding the right to
live. Tomorrow you will see the mightiest demonstration of unity there has
ever been in Belfast. The authorities have banned the demonstration but the
workers are going out".
And they did. Fighting broke out when police tried to disperse the workers.
Armoured cars were called in and the strikers went to the ODR sites to get
their tools. These tools now became weapons. Fierce hand to hand battles took
place on the Falls and the Shankill, with the RUC bringing their guns into
play. Sammy Baxter, a Protestant from Regent Street who had been fighting
alongside his Catholic fellow strikers, was shot dead on the Falls. The people
responded by building barricades to keep the police out and repulse their
attacks. That night a police curfew was enforced for the first time since
The following day saw the fighting continue with John Keenan, a Catholic from
the Falls Road, being killed by the RUC. James Kelly of the Irish Independent
described one scene: “On the Shankill Road crowds of growling men lounged
around waiting. . . Suddenly a big red faced woman with a black shawl thrown
over her shoulders, wisps of hair hanging from her eyes, appeared almost from
nowhere. . . She ran to crowds of men and in quick, terse language told them
that the unemployed and the police were in conflict on the Falls Road ‘Are
you going to let them down?’ she almost shrieked. ‘No, by heavens
we are not’ they roared back, and in almost a twinkling a veritable
orgy of destruction began.”
Everywhere the police with their guns and armoured cars went they were met
by stone throwers. Each time they tried to get into the side streets the stone
throwers drove them back onto the main roads. On the Falls Road the mill workers,
many in bare feet, came out and smashed up the police cordons trying to prevent
the food parcels sent by the unions getting into the beleaguered north and
west of the city.
The government had finally come up with a strategy. John Campbell, secretary
of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, commented "Lord Craigavon's solution
was to divide the workers into different religious camps and it was noteworthy
that although the recent trouble was spread all over the city only in a Roman
Catholic area did the police use their guns".
Sir Dawson Bates, Stormont Minister for Home Affairs, claimed the IRA were
using the ODR strike as a cover to overthrow "Protestant rights".
Nothing like the threat of an IRA uprising to reactivate the sectarian monster.
When the rioting stopped two were dead and another fifteen had suffered gunshot
wounds - all in Catholic areas and inflicted by the RUC. Nineteen others,
nearly all Protestant, had suffered other serious injuries mainly caused by
The government was working hard to break the new-found workers unity and had
some success in rekindling religious hatred but they also had to compromise.
The Belfast Trades Council threatened a general strike (although it is very
questionable if its leaders would in fact have carried out this threat). Unionist
officials hurried to negotiate with the Trades Council leaders.
The strikers won big cash increases in their relief pay. The terms were communicated
to the strike committee by a delegation from the trades council. At a mass
meeting in St Mary's hall Tommy Geehan proposed the terms be accepted. They
were and there was much celebrating around the city.
One of the main demands, though, was not conceded, the giving of relief to
single persons. Geehan and the other RWG members who were on the strike committee
came in for heavy criticism for ending the strike before winning this. It
was to have a very bad effect on the unemployed movement.
On October 17th left wing Labour Party members set up a breakaway organisation
catering only for the single persons who had been left with nothing. And the
next month the Trades Council set up a moderate organisation for the unemployed.
With three competing organisations, whose leaderships spent most of their
time attacking each other, the movement declined and the city grew quieter.
The Guardians felt confident enough by December to announce that the new agreed
rates were maximum rates only and could be reduced as they decided! The new
rates were paid to some, not to others and the single unemployed got nothing
However, the most important thing about 1932 is that it was a great episode
in the history of our class. For a short time the whole rotten all-class alliance
of unionism was cracking. The theory that Protestant and Catholic workers
would never unite was exposed as rubbish and the events of the strike provide
an inspiration for those of us who see tackling sectarianism as a job that
can't be neglected. Let us learn from the mistakes but let us also learn what
is possible when workers come together.
Taken and Edited from Workers Solidarity no. 21, October 1986