Lessons of the Great Belfast Strike of 1919

Submitted by AWL on 14 April, 2008 - 10:22 Author: Michael Farrell

1919 was a year of turmoil all over Europe. In the confusion following the break up of three great empires in World War I — the Russian, Turkish and Austrian empires — the working class began to assert itself. In Russia the young Bolshevik republic was fighting for its life. In Bavaria and Hungary short-lived Soviet Republics were established, and in Vienna and Berlin there were socialist uprisings.

Even Belfast did not escape unscathed and at the beginning of 1919 the city experienced the largest and longest industrial dispute in its history. For nearly four weeks shipyard and engineering workers and corporation employees were out on strike and Belfast was without light, heat, trams or heavy industry.

The Belfast strike was part of a general movement for shorter hours which affected all the major industrial centres of Britain as well. During the First World War workers in all industries had been forced to accept gruellingly long hours and low pay. Resentment had built up especially among the well organised engineering workers, and already there had been several disputes in Belfast and Glasgow. With the pressure of the war over, the workers were determined to get their demands. They were spurred on by the approaching demobilisation of hundreds of thousands of soliders, and the threat of mass unemployment. Shorter hours were seen as a form of work-sharing to create more jobs.

The hours worked were intolerable. Engineering workers had a 54 hour week and unskilled workers such as millhands and carters worked even longer. Many men never saw daylight except at weekends for most of the year. They all started without breakfast and had a break for it after a couple of hours.

Anticipating an outburst the TUC had negotiated an agreement with the employers at the end of 1918. Engineering workers were to have a 47 hour week from January 1 1919. The workers weren’t satisfied and in the national ballot on the agreement they were offered a choice between 54 hours and 47 hours, as a result only 25% bothered to vote.

So the strikes were unofficial and opposed by the TUC and the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE). But workers went ahead: the main centres of militancy were Belfast and Glasgow, though the strikers in both centres had different demands. In Belfast where the decision to strike was taken before Glasgow, the demand was for a 44 hour week including four hours on Saturday. In Glasgow and some of the British centres it was for 40 hours.

On August 21 1918, with the war still on, a packed meeting was held in the Ulster hall and an overflow meeting took place outside. It was called by a committee of militants to pressurise the district committee of the Federation of Shipbuilding and Engineers and Allied Trades into action. James Baird, Boilermakers Society and James Freeland, Irish Organiser of the ASE proposed that they call on the Federation to demand a 44 hour week. It was passed unanimously.

On December 5 1918 another meeting was held with most of the candidates for Belfast seats in the General Election present. Freeland proposed that the meeting call for the 44 hour week to be introduced on January 1 and this was passed unanimously. Several of the Unionists spoke in favour, and none against, though Carson the leader of the Tory Unionists in Ireland referred to the 47 hour agreement in Britain and warned against any separate arrangement in Ulster.

Further meetings were held on December 27 and January 4 when delegates from the Federation reported on their talks with the employers who refused to give way. The January 4 meeting voted to give 14 days strike notice but the Federation officers, who weren’t keen on a strike, played for time, sending a deputation to Clydeside to find out the situation there.

Finally on January 14 1919 the Federation held a ballot of its Belfast members It was the occasion for a striking demonstration. Over 20,000 shipyard and engineering workers downed tools at midday and marched to the City Hall for a mass meeting. Then they marched to their union halls to vote. The result was overwhelming.

1,184 voted in favour of a 47 hour week, 20,225 voted for a 44 hour week and an unofficial strike to get it, and 558 voted for the 44 hour week but against the strike to get it. Notice was served on the two shipyards Harland and Wolff and Workman, Clark - the engineering employers and Belfast Corporation, that a strike would begin at noon on January 25 if the 44 hour week was not conceded.

Elsewhere strike action began before the 25th but was on a small scale and was shortlived. In Glasgow, the other main centre, no firm decision had been taken by the 14th and the strike didn’t begin until the 27th.

January 25 1919 was a Saturday and the shipyard and engineering workers finished at noon anyway so the effect was not immediately obvious, but by 5 p.m. the electricity power station and the gas works were affected. The power supply to the trams was cut off and they returned to their depots while the gas lights were not lit. The Saturday afternoon shoppers had to walk home in the dark.

On Sunday 8,000 workers gathered at the customhouse steps to show their support for the strike and hear speakers from the newly appointed strike committee. They announced that a deputation would meet the Corporation on Monday to discuss essential services and a strike meeting was arranged for outside the City Hall at the same time.

On Monday the Corporation, mindful of the thousands of strikers outside, agreed to shut off the electric supply to a consumers except the hospitals, for which the strikers agreed to send in a skeleton staff. Since gas could not be cut off to ordinary users the whole gas supply was cut but workers went in to staff the plant.

Meanwhile, most of the engineering shops were shut down and the shipyards were almost empty. After the meeting at the City Hall, 2,000 workers marched to the shipyards to have a “peaceful picket” and persuade the apprentices and clerical staff to stop work also. They broke through the gates, pulled the apprentices out and stoned the offices.

From then on the yards were closed and pickets prevented anyone from going down Queen’s Road without a pass from the strike committee. They even stopped company directors.

The same sort of mass picketing was used at firms like the Sirocco works where the men were reluctant to come out, while the cutting off of gas and electricity and the withdrawal of key engineering workers gradually closed down the Rope works and most of the linen mills in the city.

The press was affected as well and the Irish News, after producing a single sheet on Monday, closed down until February 14. The Telegraph was closed for a week and the Newsletter missed a single issue, but the Northern Whig kept going, though reduced in size and circulation. Meanwhile, the strike committee established their own paper, the Workers’ Bulletin, which published 18 issues up to the end of the strike.By the end of the week, nearly 40,000 workers were out and another 20,000 laid off because of the strike. There was no gas, electricity or transport and all major factories in the city were closed. Snow at the beginning of the week and then slush sharpened the strike’s effect.

The strikers were making their presence felt as well. For several nights groups roamed the streets smashing windows in shops or offices where electricity was being used, and stoning the offices of the Belfast Telegraph which was noted for its anti-working class views. The strike committee condemned this “hooliganism” however and appointed strike pickets to patrol the streets with the police to maintain order.

On Tuesday a massive demonstration was held with thousands of workers marching from Carlisle Circus to the centre of the city for a mass meeting and on Sunday another meeting was held at the Custom House steps where the extraordinarily confused attitude of Belfast workers to their employers was shown by the observance of several minutes of silence in memory of the Managing Director of Harland and Wolff who had just died.

In Glasgow there were dramatic scenes however. There the strike was not as complete as in Belfast and trams were running though most of the shipyards and engineering works closed down. But there were still 100,000 out on strike, and the strike committee had demanded that Lord Provost call on the London government to intervene.

On Friday January 31, a huge crowd gathered outside the City Chambers in George Square to hear the government’s reply. A deputation went in to see the Provost and while the crowd was waiting the police made a baton charge. Then the Riot Act was read, mounted police made repeated charges to clear the square, and two members of the deputation, Willie Gallacher and David Kirkwood were batoned and arrested.

Later in the day Manny Shinwell, chair of the strike committee (later an MP, and now a centenarian Lord) was arrested, and that night Highland troops were drafted into Glasgow. The city awoke to find tanks in the Saltmarket, machine gun posts in George Square and troops with fixed bayonets in the streets. The strike was broken. Confused, frightened, and leaderless, some men drifted back to work on Monday and by the end of the week it was over. On February 12 the strike committee admitted defeat and recommended a return to work. But the long term effect was different.

The Glasgow workers had seen the brutal reality of a bosses’ government in action and it hardened the mood of industrial and political militancy that was developing on Clydeside. The only comment in Belfast at the weekend came from a strike committee speaker called Clarke at the Custom House who said “they seemed to have made a mess of things over there and (he) contrasted the occurrences there with the peaceful and well organised manner in which the strike was being conducted in Belfast.” (Northern Whig).

As the strike entered its second week things took a graver turn. The strike committee had relied on the principle of the short sharp attack. They had expected that a week without public services would bring the city to its knees and have the prosperous citizens begging the shipyard and engineering employers to settle with the men. They had not bargained for a long drawn-out struggle where the workers stood to lose more than the bosses, trying to exist on meager strike pay – on in the case of the 5,000 ASE members no strike pay at all, as their union refused to pay it.

It became clear to the strike leaders that if they were to win this contest they would have to tighten the screws a little. So far, apart from heavy engineering and the mills, whose owners could afford a few weeks stoppage, business had not been unduly disrupted. Shops could get supplies and if prices rose somewhat it hit the working class hardest. But the strike committee had a promise of support from the transport workers, the dockers, carters and railwaymen. If they called these men out, comrrrerce would come to a total standstill. It would be tantamount to a general strike.

The strike committee hesitated. They were not sure that they could handle the chaos that would ensue and organise the rationing and distribution of essential supplies. On Monday February 3, a delegation met the Corporation again. J. Milan of the ETU asked the Corporation to set up a committee jointly with the strikers to administer supplies. “The transport workers would come out at any time” he said, “but they hadn’t called them out as the strike committee wasn’t sure that it could run the city”. (Belfast Newsletter). The Corporation ignored the request and the transport workers were never called out.

Meanwhile the strikers’ enemies moved onto the offensive. Already the Lord Mayor had tried to split the movement by appealing to the corporation employees to return separately. He pointed out that the Corporation automatically paid the standard rate in the city so they would get the benefit of shorter hours won in the dispute without having to strike at all. He also pointed out that the (London) secretary of the Municipal Employees Association had instructed them to return to work. He was unsuccessful.

Now the Newsletter took a hand in the fray. From the beginning of the dispute the Newsletter, Whig and Telegraph had been hostile to the strikers the Irish News had been sympathetic until it ceased publication but now the Newsletter launched an allout attack. “One of the (strikers) deputation boasted that they had set up a ‘workers’ parliament’. That is the language of the Bolshevists and Sinn Feiners and it should open the eyes of the authorities, and also of the vast majority of the men, who are loyal and law abiding, to the real objectives of ‘the strike committee. These objectives are not industrial, but revolutionary, and if they were attained they would bring disaster to the city.” (February 4, 1919).

For the rest of the strike the Newsletter continued in this vein, calling for a ban on all strikes by workers in the public service and the prosecution of the Belfast strike leaders whom they described as “Bolshevists, Anarchists and the hirelings of Germany” (February 8, 1919). The Whig and Telegraph were not far behind.

On Monday February 4, the Grand Orange Lodge of Belfast issued a manifesto to the strikers. They claimed to be neutral on the question of hours but appealed for an immediate resumption of work to await settlement on a national (i.e. UK) basis. This was exactly what the employers wanted. The workers’ only chance was to force a concession in areas of strength like Glasgow or Belfast and then campaign for parity elsewhere. But the Grand Lodge had also some comments on the origin of the strike.

“It is perfectly clear that the condition of affairs today has been to a great extent engineered by parties who are neither employers nor employed but who have taken advantage of a trade dispute to attempt to bring discredit on the fair name of Belfast. These parties smarting from the defeat which they have suffered recently at the General Election are endeavouring to get the working men of Belfast into a position from which, in a short time, they may find it very difficult to withdraw. “

This was a reference to the prominent position on the strike committee of James Freeland of the ASE and Robert Waugh, Ulster Secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners (ASCJ). Both had been Labour candidates in Belfast in the 1918 election.

The attack of the Newsletter and the Orange Order, and even the appearance of a lorryload of armed Royal Irish Constabulary men didn’t prevent a huge march of strikers on Tuesday from Carlisle Circus to the City Hall, where four platforms were required so all the strikers could hear something.

The Orange Lodge’s manifesto was attacked, but there was no sign from Waugh or the other Orangemen on the strike committee that they were resigning in protest. The meeting ended with an extraordinary scene. The funeral of Cuming, the Managing Director of Harland and Wolff, passed the City Hall, and members of the strike committee led many of the workers in joining the cortege.

With the strike committee hesitating to extend the strike and after the strikers’ remarkable display of loyalty to their bosses the time was ripe for negotiations, Lord Pirrie, Chairman of Harland and Wolff, and Government Controller of Merchant Shipping, was in Belfast for Cuming’s funeral. On Wednesday February 5, he met a delegation from the strike committee.

Pirrie’s proposals were ludicrous: he would arrange a meeting with the shipyard directors if the public services were restored immediately and the shipyard went back to work with a 54 hour week with overtime paid after 47 hours. The strike committee rejected this out of hand but a meeting with the directors was arranged anyway, without conditions.

The negotiations dragged on over the weekend, but on Mondav February 10, the employers proposed settlement terms. The men would return to work on the basis of a 54 hour week and the employers would call a “national” conference of engineering employers within 30 days and recommend to it a working week shorter than 47 hours. If the conference didn’t accept this then the two Belfast shipyards would settle with their workers independently within three weeks.

Meanwhile the strikers had several setbacks. The National Executive of the ASE meeting in London had announced the suspension of its Belfast and Glasgow District Secretaries for involvement in an unofficial strike, the Committees were also suspended. The Negotiating Committee of the UK Federation of Shipbuilding, Engineering and Allied Trades had called on all shipyard workers to return to work. The government too took a hand.

Faced with a threatened strike by London electricians in solidarity with the Belfast and Glasgow strikers, the government made a new regulation under the wartime Defence of the Realm Act. The DORA regulation made it an offence to deprive the community of light or to encourage anyone to do so. Guards were mounted on all power stations and troops stood by to take control. The electricians’ strike was called off and this broke the back of the Glasgow movement. It weakened Belfast too.

By now the strike committee was in favour of the settlement proposals. Charles McKay, the Chairman, told a crowd of strikers “The 44 hour week was as good as won. It might indeed be shorter than 44”. The committee began to make arrangements for a ballot of the workers.

There was still fight in the strikers. On Tuesday February 11, the Corporation suddenly restored the public services, gas, electricity and trams. This was contrary to the settlement terms; the men were to stay out till the vote was taken. The Corporation thought they had the workers on the run and attempted to press home the advantage. They were wrong. Strike pickets stopped the trams at Castle Junction, ordered the passengers off and told the drivers to go back to their depots.

The Gas and Electricity Departments were warned that if they didn’t go back to the agreed level they would be closed down completely, hospitals or no hospitals. By Tuesday evening the public services had stopped again and the Newsletter was screaming with impotent rage at the “supreme dictators” of the strike committee.

The ballot on the terms offered by the employers was taken on Friday February 14, two days after the Glasgow strike committee had admitted defeat. But a serious problem had arisen. The negotiations had only been with the shipyard employers. However, the engineering, building and electrical employers refused. They insisted on 47 hours.

So the workers voted on Friday knowing that the settlement might mean shorter hours for the shipyard men but leave the others as before. On the other hand the strike was about to enter its fourth week with many men not getting strike pay and with the Red Clydeside in retreat. If Belfast continued the fight they would be on their own.

The result of the ballot was 8,774 for the settlement terms and 11,963 against – a majority of 3,189 for rejection. The skilled workers had voted 2 to 1 against, with the ACSJ five to one against, while the more numerous unskilled workers had a small majority for acceptance. The strike committee reluctantly accepted the verdict and agreed to continue but at the Custom House meeting on Sunday, Clarke declared that if the settlement had been accepted it might have meant the “44”. This was countered by a tough speech from Sam Kyle of the Workers’ Union but already events were moving fast.

On the Tuesday before the ballot Parliament had re-opened at Westminster and Lloyd George had strongly attacked the strikers, saying “Anarchy is their aim, anarchy is their focus, to destroy not merely trade unionism, but the state. We are determined to fight Prussianism in the industrial world exactly as we fought it on the Continent of Europe, with the whole might of the nation.” The strikers got little support from William Adamson MP, Leader of the Labour Party, who said the strikes been fomented by “revolutionaries” – “as the speaker for a constitutional party he would encourage neither revolution nor unofficial action”.

At the same time in Belfast, employers, papers, and City Councillors were growing louder in their demands for stern measures against the strikers. On Thursday the Lord Mayor met Lt. General Sir Frederick Shaw, Commanderin-Chief for Ireland and was promised military protection for blacklegs and for key installations.

On Saturday the Mayor issued a proclamation inviting “all members of the community who are prepared to assist in putting an end to the prevailing lawless and wholly unjustifiable attack on the common rights of the citizens (to help) by offering their services as workers” and to contact him at the City Hall. On Saturday night, troops moved into the gasworks and power station fully armed and in battle gear. The men were told to return to work and most of them did.

Two shop stewards who refused to work were arrested and charged under the DORA regulation. The trams were put back on the streets, though only a tenth of the workers turned up and only a skeleton service ran. Strikers returning from a Custom House meeting attacked the trams and fought a running battle with police in Royal Avenue, but they couldn’t stop the service and by Monday more tram workers turned up for duty.

Power, gas and trams were restored by Monday and the strike seemed to be collapsing. Seizing their advantage the engineering employers announced that they would reopen their firms on Tuesday and the shipyards on Thursday, all with a 47 hour week. The demoralised strike committee made no attempt to picket the power station or gas works and on Monday night, February 17, they decided to recommend a return to work on Thursday. The decision was unpopular and they refused to reveal it to the crowd outside their offices. Charles McKay announced that there would be another ballot and there were shouts of “Sellout” and “Who kept the transport workers in when they should have been out with us?”

The strikers voted union by union on Tuesday and Wednesday but their morale was broken. 20 out of 22 unions voted to resume and the others accepted the majority decision. By Thursday the strike was over. A fifth of the workers stayed out but it was not an organised protest. By the following Monday all were back at work and the troops were withdrawn. The cases against the power station shopstewards were dismissed to avoid further trouble and the greatest industrial dispute in Belfast’s history was over.

The shorter hours movement had failed, in Glasgow and Belfast as well as the smaller centres. The workers went back to the 47 hours they could have had for the asking without a strike. But the movement had a sequel.

In Glasgow, where the strike was less widespread and sooner defeated than in Belfast it left a legacy of working class consciousness which made Clydeside the stronghold of the ILP and their apparently militant politics for 20 or 30 years. In the 1918 election the ILP had put up 19 candidates in Scotland and won two seats, only one of them in Glasgow. In the local elections of 1920 they won 45 seats on Glasgow Corporation and in the 1922 General Election they won 10 of the 15 Glasgow seats and 20 in Scotland as a whole. From then until their deaths the “Clydeside” MPs dominated politics in the West of Scotland.

Belfast had the same industrial background as Glasgow, the same miserable slums and grinding poverty. The strike had lasted longer there and had been more widespread. At first the great industrial conflict seemed to have the same effect. In Belfast Labour had been politically weak.

Labour candidates and four Labour candidates in the 1918 election had come well down the voting list. But on the first Saturday in May 1919, despite the inflammatory attacks of the Newsletter, over 100,000 workers took part in a May Day march from the City Hall to Ormeau Park. At the subsequent meeting the platforms were dominated by leaders of the strike earlier in the year, and they called for Labour representation in the city.

The opportunity came in January 1920 with the first – and only - Corporation elections held under proportional representation. Labour nominated 20 candidates for the 60 seats and 13 were elected; two of them, Sam Kyle in Shankill and George Donaldson in St Annes, topped the poll. Five of the 13 including Kyle and Donaldson, were leaders of the 1919 strike. This was the strongest ever Labour representation on the Corporation and they were jubilant. They were sure they could smash the Unionist grip on the city inside a few years.

They were sadly disillusioned. As the war of independence in the South gained momentum so tempers rose - or were inflamed – in the North. There was bitter sectarian rioting in Derry in May and June and the sppeches at the 12th in Belfast were highly inflammatory. Then Col. Philips, a Banbridge man, and Divisional Commander of the RIC in Munster where his brutality provoked a mutiny, was shot dead in Cork and brought home for burial.

This was made the occasion for a meeting outside Workman and Clark’s shipyard, held with the collusion of the management. One speaker called for a show of revolvers and the expulsion of Sinn Feiners from the yard. It was the signal for an orgy of terrorism in which all “disloyalists” were driven from both shipyards, and most of the engineering works as well. Some had to swim for their lives across the Lagan. That night rioting erupted in the city and continued for five days, leaving 17 dead and hundreds injured.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy was that the expulsions started and were fiercest in the very shipyards and engineering works which had been the backbone of the great strike scarcely 18 months before and where working class solidarity should have been strongest. Charles McKay the Chairman of the strike committee was expelled: he was a Catholic. But James Baird, a Protestant who had presided at early strike meetings, went as well as did John Hanna, a former Worshipful Master of an Orange Lodge.

Altogether 12,000 men were expelled and about 3,000 were Protestants, most of them socialists, Labour men or militant trade unionists. Thus ended working class solidarity in Belfast. It was no accident that the meeting on, July 21 passed a resolution to stand by the employers as well as expel their fellow-workers.

A sad little footnote was added to the story when the Belfast District Committee of the Federation of Shipbuilding, Engineering and Allied Trades met on October 18, 1920. A letter was read from the management of Harland and Wolff refusing a further request for a 44 hour week and “the Federation decided to defer this matter owing to the unsettled and uncertain position at present prevailing in Belfast”. (Northern Whig).

In the face of the pogroms the trade union movement was impotent. The employers must have been well satisfied. The Orange Card had worked again.

The 1919 strike failed in two ways. It failed to achieve its immediate objective of a 44 hour week and it failed to establish a tradition of working class consciousness and solidarity which would have transcended sectarian incitement in 1920 and prevented the outbreak of the pogrom.

On the day the strike ended the Chairman of the strike committee, Charles McKay, gave his explanation for the first failure to the Newsletter: “If the Clyde and other centres had displayed the same solidarity, made the same stand, as we in Belfast made, we should now have been working 44 hours.” But this is not enough. Belfast was the strongest centre in the strike. There the strike was most widespread, it had the sanction of a democratic ballot of the workers, and the authorities were slow to act against the strikers. Belfast should have been able to stand alone. And if the “44” had been won in Belfast it would have spread to other centres.

Two decisions of the Strike Committee ensured their defeat: the failure to call out the transport workers and the failure to challenge the military occupation of the power station and the gas works. From the first weekend the rank and file were calling for the involvement of the transport workers and at the end many were convinced that this was the reason for their defeat. The strike committee all the time maintained that they had the support of the transport workers and having declared limited industrial war in Belfast they would have been better to broaden the struggle.

When the military occupied the gas and electricity works no attempt was made to picket them. The committee feared a clash like that in Glasgow. The authorities were expecting it and had brought in three extra magistrates to try the resulting court cases. The workers were not afraid as they showed when, they attacked the trams on the last Sunday. But the committee shirked the risk and failed to call the authorities’ bluff, thereby they conceded defeat.

For the strike committee to be willing to call a virtual general strike or to take the risk of serious rioting between strikers and troops they would have had to believe in the doctrine of the class war and that the government was the tool of the employers not the servant of the people. Members of the committee believed no such thing. At the Custom House meeting on Sunday February 10, Clarke of the Strike Committee boasted that “they had never once said a hard or harsh or unkind word about the employers.” Even James Baird who was something of a militant, wrote to the Northern Whig “I most emphatically deny having at any time said or written anything calculated to create class prejudice.”

The dilemma of the strike committee was that they were trying to fight their battle according to the rules. The employers had no such scruples and anyway they made the rules so they could change them if they wished.

The second failure of the strike was related to the first. To build up a solidarity which would transcend and overcome sectarian prejudice required political as well as industrial awareness. The strikers received an industrial education from the strike itself though the final lessons went unlearnt when the committee failed to extend the strike. The political lessons of the strike were not drawn by the committee and they prevented anyone else from drawing them.

The strike committee was made up of delegates and officials of all the unions affiliated to the federation. It was a heterogeneous body. Two prominent members, James Freeland and Robert Waugh had been Labour candidates in the recent election. So had Sam Kyle, a textile workers’ official, who played an active part in the strike. But also on the strike committee were Robert Weir and William Grant, prominent members of the Ulster Unionist Labour Association, which had been set up to counteract the spread of Labourism in the working class and keep them loyal to the Unionist Party. Grant later became a Unionist MP and Stormont Cabinet Minister.

The motley composition of the strike committee produced the resolve to keep the strike ‘non-political’ John McKaig of the Workers’ Union, speaking at the City Hall on January 29 said “he was not there to discuss politics or religion. They were there to get a 44 hour week for the people of this country, North, South, East or West” (Belfast Newsletter). James Baird, who was a member of the Belfast ILP wrote to the Whig “like Mr Allen (a director of Workman and Clark) I refrain from introducing any political references, except to assure him that politics have nothing to do with the hours of labour”.

The desire to keep politics out prevented more than the briefest reference to the conduct of the Unionist MPs for Belfast who had pledged themselves to support the 44 hour demand before the election and who now completely ignored the issue. Indeed one, RJ Lynn MP, who had spoken strongly in favour of the “44” at the Ulster Hall meeting on December 5, was editor of the Whig which daily attacked the strikers. The three “Labour Unionists” elected – all trade unionists – were particularly silent, yet one, Sam McGuffin, MP for Shankill, was cheered at a union meeting after the strike began. No attempt was made to expose the hypocrisy of these charlatans’ claim to represent the interests of the working class.

But the strike committee did more than just discourage politics. During the first few days of the strike a member of the Workers’ Union, Jack O’Hagan, spoke at several meetings and made the only serious attempt to talk of socialism, capitalism and the class war. O’Hagan, who was not a Northerner and had been involved in many strikes, then organized daily meetings at the City Hall at which he and a few colleagues put the socialist case.

On Thursday January 30th they were interrupted by Clarke, a member of the strike committee who announced that the committee wanted no unauthorised meetings. “Mr O’Hagan might think he was doing a great deal of good in connection with the strike, but he could tell him that he was doing an enormous amount of harm.” This led to shouts that “There was neither Bolshevism or Sinn Feinism in the strike movement” (Belfast Newsletter), and O’Hagan was rushed by a section of the crowd. When O’Hagan went to the strike committee’s offices to clarify the matter Robert Waugh told the large crowd outside that O’Hagan had no authority from the committee to hold meetings and the committee alone should run the strike. Bob Weir of the Unionist Labour Association added that “If these men attempt to speak again you can deal with them” (Belfast Newsletter).

Clarke figured again at the meeting on Sunday February 2, when he referred to labour unrest in Dublin. “On behalf of the strike committee he disclaimed any responsibility for anything that might occur in Dublin (a voice ‘Unity is strength’). The speaker concurred but said the Dublin workers had not been in with the Belfast workers from the start. In fact the Dublin movement was entirely unconnected with the Belfast movement which was purely a local one” (Belfast Newsletter). For this performance Clarke won the nickname of “the repudiator”.

At the end of the strike Charles McKay repeated the point in his interview with the Newsletter. There was none of the frothy talk of the usual agitator type, who take advantage of strikers to push their own ideas. The men held to the idea of the 44 hour week as a simple plain demand, without working out any theories such as were associated with the shorter hours movement on the Clyde and elsewhere” and he outlined his own philosophy, “I have every hope that if we can stick to the purely industrial aspect we shall remedy many injustices which the worker still suffers from in Belfast. “

In fact they did not always stick rigidly to “the purely industrial aspect”. Some forms of politics were less rigidly excluded than others. At the big meeting on December 5 to persuade the election candidates to support the 44 hours, the proceedings began with “God Save the King”. And when the shipyard workers downed tools on January 14 to march to the ballot on the strike issue, the Union Jack was prominently displayed, together with trade union banners.

It was impossible to keep “politics” out of the strike when every development forced it upon the strikers. The practical effect of the strike committee’s efforts was to reduce the politics of the strike to the lowest common denominator. The vast majority of the strikers were Unionist by upbringing and tradition. The strike brought them into conflict with the Unionist establishment. That conflict could only be resolved and their sectarian prejudices left unchallenged if the ideology of Labour Unionism remained dominant, an ideology which claimed that class conflicts were not irreconcilable, that the interests of workers and employers were basically the same and merely needed periodic readjustment.

By bending over backwards to deny any connection with Sinn Fein, Bolshevism or the workers of Dublin, by tolerating Unionist flag-waving, by eschewing any effort and political propaganda themselves and by prohibiting it from socialists the strike committee reduced its politics to those of Robert Weir and William Grant, to the level of the Unionist Labour Association.

The “Labour” members of the committee occasionally referred to the need for greater “Labour” representation, and their word may well have borne fruit in the Corporation election of 1920, but this still didn’t challenge any prejudices or indeed raise the question of socialism since Freeland had declared in the 1918 election that he would oppose Home Rule and Waugh had boasted that he was an Orangeman and had “no connection with any political body.” (Northern Whig).

The reason the 1919 strike failed to establish lasting solidarity among the workers of Belfast, a solidarity that would have overcome any further incitement to sectarian hate, was because no-one tried, or was given the chance to try, to use the lessons of the strike to uproot the sectarian ideology of the workers and replace it with socialism All that was left behind was a veneer of economic militancy which cracked as soon as sectarian tension grew. In trying to exclude “politics” from the strike the strike committee sowed the wind. In July 1920 they reaped the whirlwind, many of them personally.

There can be few clearer examples in history of the ephemeral effect of purely economic militancy. The greatest labour upheaval in Belfast’s history left scarcely a ripple on the political consciousness of the city’s workers. There could be no better proof of the need for a socialist party which can not only take the lead in such struggle, but constantly draw the lessons of them and take advantage of the heightened political interest and involvement of the workers at such a time to hammer these lessons home.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.