Nov 13 2017

Review: Struggle or Starve: Working Class Unity in Belfast’s Outdoor Relief Riots

Tommy McKearney reviews Struggle or Starve: Working Class Unity in Belfast’s Outdoor Relief Riots

by Sean Mitchell.




Struggle or Starve by Séan Mitchell is an important book that deserves the widest readership among those interested in promoting progressive politics in the North of Ireland. The author provides the reader with a detailed, and even inspirational, account of a rare period in Belfast’s history when the working class was united around a campaign to address matters of immediate need. More than that, through, his analysisraises questions about events of that period which still have relevance today. How possible is it to overcome sectarianism through shared struggle and can this be done within the context of a political unit as fundamentally flawed as Northern Ireland?

While the central theme of Mitchell’s book focuses on the Out Door Relief campaign of 1932, it puts this struggle in the context of a six county statelet that was little more than a decade old. The author makes no bones about the reactionary ,authoritarian and sectarian nature of the Northern Ireland government of the time, supported ultimately by the imperial parliament in London. To his credit, he avoids the clichéd and misleading trap of ascribing the nature of the state and its failings to flawed personality or character defects among the indigenous population. The book examines the nature and composition of northern Irish society and its ruling elite at this time.

Without excusing murderous anti-Catholic violence of the 1920s, the author points to the dire underlying economic conditions that not only drove many to commit such barbarity but allowed an unscrupulous ruling class to exploit the unhappy situation.

No matter how familiar we are with the history of the northern state, it is still sobering to read of just how deeply sectarian it was and how widespread was this poison throughout the six-counties. Virulent bigotry typified much of unionism. From its Prime Minister James Craig, who infamously said that Catholics ;. . . breed like bloody rabbits. . . ’ to the working class Ulster Protestant Association, which according to an RUC inspector had the sole aim of exterminating Catholics by any means, the problem was widespread.

These atavistic prejudices seem to defy logic until contextualised by a commentator such as the historian John Gray who is quoted by Mitchell as saying that for Belfast’s capitalist ruling class, self interest and Unionist politics were inextricably linked. To protect and maintain their holdings and position of privilege, employers encouraged sectarian divisions in order to divide working class communities and thus weaken trade union activity. Keep in mind too that in the early years of the northern state, the ruling capitalist class (a group virtually indistinguishable then from the government of Northern Ireland) feared that the example of Bolshevik Russia would inspire Belfast’s workers to take similar action.

Sectarian divisions within the working class inevitably resulted in a weakened and emasculate organised labour movement with the unavoidable consequence of diminished bargaining power. Unsurprisingly the outcome of this situation was that the working class in Belfast experienced worse living conditions than almost anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Consequently the northern state felt little need to provide adequate welfare protection for the unemployed and the poor.

In fact, so complacent was the northern ruling class by the end of the 1920s, that it had allowed harsh 19th century poor law provisions to remain in place after they had been abandoned in both Britain and southern Ireland. Those tasked with administering relief to the needy – the Belfast Board of Guardians – saw their primary responsibility as being to discourage, as far as was possible, the distribution of assistance. Elected by the city’s rate payers, board members endeavoured to curtail expenditure by forcing the destitute to seek employment regardless of whether work was availability or adequately remunerated. Their heartless attitude towards the poor found full expression when it came to administration of Out Door Relief (ODR), a facility designed to cope with widespread poverty outside the walls of workhouses.

While the plight of the North’s poor had long been dire, they had tended to suffer misery in silence in the face of an indifferent ruling elite. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 was to change that, for a time at least. So great was the impact of the depression that by 1932, unemployment and poverty was widespread across every section of Belfast’s working class. There was an acute need for assistance to relieve hunger and hypothermia in the city but little was provided by the state or its proxies on the Board of Guardians.

The ruling class believed it had little tofear, having ruthlessly imposed its authority a decade earlier and protected as they were by an authoritarian legal system, an armed police force and a divided working class. Nevertheless and in spite of this, a small group of communists, organised around the Revolutionary Communist Group, set about mobilising working people in order to demand an improvement in their conditions.

Struggle or Starve describes how under the inspired leadership of Tommy Geehan, this tiny band of revolutionaries organised the impoverished population, bringing together Catholic and Protestant workers in a heroic battle to combat poverty, misery and destitution.

The author provides us with a detailed and fascinating account of the events that culminated in a strike against the punitive conditions imposed on those forced to do backbreaking work on the ODR scheme. Attempts by heavily armed police to crush the strike led to two days of riots in both Protestant and Catholic areas. To the astonishment, not to mention alarm, of the Unionist government, the working class displayed an unexpected degree of unity. Faced with the prospect of losing control of the state, the authorities conceded to most of the strikers’ demands. It was a major victory for the working people of Belfast City.

Having gained such a significant advance over a relatively short period of time, it might have been expected that the Revolutionary Communist Group and its charismatic leader Tommy Geehan would have been able to build upon their success. Nevertheless, they were unable to do so and before three years had passed, Belfast was again experiencing inter-communal rioting, houses were being burned in working class districts and blood was being shed on the streets. Tragically, this type of violent division has all too often been the norm in the decades since.

Séan Mitchell searches for answers to this heartbreaking reality. He points to the fact that the communist cadre was tiny and exercised little influence within the trade union movement or civic society in general. Organisations such as the Orange Order or the AOH held infinitely greater sway within Belfast’s working class. With the immediate issue of ODR payments apparently addressed, the RCG struggled to maintain an ongoing impact. Its organisational difficulties were compounded by the political climate of the time with both the Catholic Church and Orange institutions bitterly hostile to even moderately left-wing parties never mind an avowedly Communist group. The author also critically examines the IRA of the time and highlights the emergence of the Republican Congress, composed largely of former members of the IRA and communists.

While the book cannot be challenged asit deals with the history of the period, the author’s analysis of the failure of the RCG is, by necessity, an opinion although one that is not necessarily wrong. Whether the outcome for Geehan and his comrades might have been different had other policies been followed (or could have been followed) remains a subject for discussion and debate. Would the group have fared better had it not followed the Comintern lead? Was its absolutist rejection of right-wing social democracy a mistake or its later adoption of broad front tactics detrimental? Was the buildingof a Workers’ Republic in Ireland remotely realistic without significant input from those who defined themselves first and foremost as republican? Was it possible under any circumstances to definitively overcome sectarianism within a political entity built upon and designed to perpetuate it?

Those were complex questions then and are subjects that are still relevant today. Over eight decades have passed since those heady days when for a brief time so much seemed possible and yet still we seem as far as ever from overcoming sectarianism.

Nevertheless, there have been important material changes in the North of Ireland in the intervening period and this cannot be overlooked when reflecting on the events recounted by Séan Mitchell. As a result of industrial decline, the North’s once powerful unionist bourgeoisie is no more and consequently the basis on which many discriminatory employment practices existed has been eroded. Moreover, one beneficial outcome of the conflict of the last decades of the 20th-century has been to make it virtually impossible to sustain the previous system of sectarian privilege within the public sector. Finally, Britain’s retreat from empire, coupled with contemporary technology has made Northern Ireland of little strategic value to London. However, unemployment, underemployment and poorly paid employment are problems experienced equally by the North’s working class while the local middle-class is becoming ever more evenly balanced between the so-called ‘two traditions’.

In other words, while old attitudes may seem depressingly resilient, the underlying infrastructure has changed. In light of this, it is important that we read Séan Mitchell’s book. It offers encouragement by providing clear evidence that working class division can be overcome through organised struggle around shared concerns. At the same time, it dispels cosy illusions as it illustrates the extent and nature of the sectarianism that preceded, and in turn re-emerged in the aftermath of the ODR campaign. Struggle or Starve encourages us to draw lessons from the past so that we may be better informed and equipped to address the needs of the future. Best of all though, this book provides a rich but readable text to stimulate the necessary discussion, debate and deliberations that socialists and republicans must have.

This review was first posted at:-



also see:


Tommy McKearney’s new book – ‘The IRA – From Insurrection to Parliament’


Report of the Third Global Commune Event


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Oct 16 2017

BEFORE AND AFTER NATIONALISM – A historical perspective

With the emergence of Scottish and Catalan self-determination as major political issues, some on the British Left have reacted against what they dismiss as the rise of nationalism. Ironically they usually completely fail to recognise their own Left unionist British nationalism. Their failure to organise any solidarity with Catalans at the receiving end of  Spanish state repression, shows they do not see the upholding of democracy as important.

Such thinking is widely held by  the supporters of  Jeremy Corbyn. They sometimes argue that  nationalism is an ideological problem which can be overcome with consistent propaganda against nationalism, coupled with prioritising economic and social issues.

The article below, written by Allan Armstrong, looks to the material roots of nationalism, showing that ideological struggle alone will not address the problem. Other articles on this blog have highlighted the importance of the struggle for democracy, including the right of self-determination when opposing the UK state and wider imperialism.



Today, it is often difficult to think outside of a framework of the fetishisation of nationalities, which makes nation-states appear to be the ‘natural order’ of things. However, we can go back to the early days of capitalist development, when nation-states were still far from being the ‘natural order’, and far more people used religious terms to explain and understand the world they lived in. It took several centuries of social and economic change, and of wider social and economic developments, before the one-time, near universal link between religion and the state was broken in enough places to allow constitutionally secular states to emerge. States, which were exclusively linked to a particular religion or denomination, gave way, first to tolerant, and then eventually to secular states. Yet religions still existed and, indeed, proliferated within a new, increasingly secular, public world. Is there a possibility of an analogous development, which could bring about a break in the connection between ethnic group, nation and the state in the future? Continue reading “BEFORE AND AFTER NATIONALISM – A historical perspective”

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Aug 17 2017



This is the third part of A Critique of Jeremy Corbyn and British Left Social Democracy, written by Allan Armstrong. The first part can be read at:- the second part can be read at:-





Contents of part 3

 a.     The limits placed on social democracy during a crisis of global capitalism

 b.     From revolutionary democratic social democracy to existing state-accommodating reformist social  democracy

 c.     A further shift in the meaning of social democracy; the brief emergence of an alternative revolutionary democratic communism; and the descent to state-backed official communism and dissident communism

 d.     Social democracy and official communism morph into social neo-liberalism

 e.     From social liberalism to populism



a.     The limits placed on social democracy during a crisis of global capitalism

i.       We are living through a period of unprecedented global crisis – political, economic, social, and cultural. This means that ideas will be tested continuously. A democratic party used on the exploited and oppressed will have people from a whole number of tendencies – communist (as outlined in 2.f.iii), republican socialist, social democratic, movementist, green socialist, socialist feminist, environmental, etc. Continue reading “A CRITIQUE OF JEREMY CORBYN AND BRITISH LEFT SOCIAL DEMOCRACY, Part 3”

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Aug 09 2017


Socialists are now confronted with the unexpected rise of Jeremy Corbyn and the re-emergence of British Left social democracy. This first part of this article by Allan Armstrong will examine the significance of this and make a critical appraisal of their future prospects in the face of the current global multi-faceted political, economic, social, cultural and environmental crisis.

Contents of Part 1

   1.      From May 2007 to June 2017 – the SNP rules the social democratic roost in  Scotland.

   2.     The rise of Jeremy Corbyn and British Left social democracy

   3.    The prospects for Corbyn and British Left social democracy when handling economic and social issues

   4.    The limitations of Corbyn and British Left social democracy when dealing with matters of state

             A.  Brexit

             B. The National Question

a.  Conservative, liberal and unionist attempts to maintain the unity of the UK state since the nineteenth  century

               b.  Corbyn and the National Question in Ireland

               c.  Corbyn and the National Question in Scotland

               d.  Corbyn and the National Question in Wales



1. From May 2007 to June 2017 – the SNP rules the social democratic roost in Scotland

i.     Following the demise of New Labour and its successor, ‘One Nation’ Labour, the SNP has been the most effective upholder of social democracy in the UK. In 2007, the SNP won 363 council seats; 425 in 2012, and 431 in 2017. In 2007, the SNP won 47 MSPs; 69 in 2011; and 63 in 2016, (still easily the largest party at Holyrood). In 2010, the SNP won 6 MPs; 56 out of 59 in 2015, but fell back to 35 in 2017 (still having the largest number of MPs from Scotland by some way). Continue reading “A CRITIQUE OF JEREMY CORBYN AND BRITISH LEFT SOCIAL DEMOCRACY”

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Jul 08 2017


The 133rd Durham Miners’ Gala on Saturday 8th July will see some 150,000 march through the ancient city. Dave Douglass, ex-miner and author of Stardust and Coaldust autobiographical trilogy looks at its  history and the ongoing significance.





A day of looking back and looking forward

Crowds are now back to the size they were in the immediate post-war years following nationalisation, when they celebrated the defeat of the hated private coal-owners. This mother of all miners’ galas, featuring both picnics and demonstrations, was the labour movement’s most prestigious public platform. The miners formed the bedrock among the proletarian, trade union and socialist ranks; they made up an army of labour that was strategically placed in terms of their bargaining power and influence – the politics of coal dictated much of politics per se. The position of the miners in the class war sent waves across the broad labour movement. Continue reading “DURHAM MINERS’ GALA – BIG MEETING GETS BIGGER”

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Jul 07 2017


The SSP was involved in leading the socialist opposition to the G8 summit in Gleneagles in 2005. Connor Beaton is currently representing the Scottish Socialist Party at the anti-G20 protest in Hamburg. Here is his report posted on the SSP blog. (




The Scottish Socialist Party is proudly supporting and participating in the massive mobilisation against the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany this weekend.

Thousands of people from outwith Germany – a handful of SSP members among them – have responded to the call of Hamburg-based organisers for a bold, broad and borderless display of resistance to the latest international demagogues convention.


When the likes of May, Trump, Putin and Erdoğan meet in Hamburg, they will be a stone’s throw from the city’s traditionally autonomist and progressive Sternschanze and St Pauli districts, where locals view the imposition of the summit as provocative, undemocratic and violent. Continue reading “NO G20, NO UK – SCOTLAND GOES TO HAMBURG”

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Jul 07 2017


Steve Freeman reports on the politics displayed at the Left Unity Party’s conference held on June 24th in London. This was first published as a letter in Weekly Worker (



Jeremy quite happy with the Crown

On June 24, Left Unity members met in conference to consider the way ahead in the next period. Members are aware of the powerful forces pulling the party to the right. But conference revealed a struggle over whether the party should respond by moving to the right or shifting to the left. The general election sharpened up the issues. Should Left Unity carry on as before, or join the ‘Corbyn revolution’, or become the party of ‘democratic revolution’?

A resolution from Birmingham says: “The ‘Corbyn revolution’ has for the foreseeable future closed the electoral space to the left of Labour.” It has “unleashed expectations which can’t be met within the confines of the existing structures of the Labour Party”. This will spill onto the streets, in campaigns and communities. Like a whirlpool, this ‘revolution’ is pulling LU down the plug. Continue reading “TWO REVOLUTIONS?”

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Jul 07 2017


Allan Armstrong was delegated at the RISE National Forum held in Edinburgh on 8th April to be its representative at the LUP conference on May 20th. Due to the General Election this was postponed to June 24th. Attached is the full version of the talk he prepared for the conference held in London. In the event, because of time constraints, the oral version was slightly abridged.

This was first posted on the LUP blog:-


I would like to thank the LUP for providing me with the time to address your conference as a visiting representative from RISE.

Many of you here today are old enough to remember the heyday of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), which had a considerable impact throughout the UK. The SSP united the overwhelming majority of socialists in Scotland and at its height had 6 MSPs. It inspired the Socialist Alliance (SA) in England and Wales. Although the SP and the SWP managed to sabotage the SA the SSP’s downfall was an almost entirely Scottish affair. This can be largely laid at the feet of a certain Tommy Sheridan.

After 2004, socialists in Scotland were very divided. IndyRef1, though, provided an opportunity for socialists to regain political influence. Young socialists, largely unaffected by ‘Tommygate’, initiated the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) in 2012. This coalition, or united front, brought together, not only many of the previously divided socialists, but the Left in the SNP and the Greens and a majority not involved in any party. Continue reading “ADDRESS TO THE LEFT UNITY CONFERENCE ON JUNE 24th”

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Jun 08 2017


We are posting this position paper from Steve Freeman (Republican Socialist Alliance and Campaign for a European Socialist Republican Party) first posted on the Left Unity blog. 


The general election is an opportunity for the working class in Scotland to build a stronger and more militant opposition to Tory Brexit and all anti-working class austerity policies whether from Tory or SNP governments. It is an opportunity to organise a stronger democratic movement against the Union, including preparing for a referendum on self determination, seeking closer unity with the anti-Unionist workers in England and more broadly with the European working class.

Left Unity will not stand candidates in the 2017 general election in Scotland. We will support any RISE or Scottish Socialist Party candidates whose policies are close to our own. Left Unity is clear in its commitment to socialism and will use the election to advance the following policies aimed to strengthen the working class internationally – opposition to austerity, imperialist wars, Trident, NATO, TTIP; anti-Unionism and support for the right to self determination, republican democracy, migrant rights and Pan European socialist organisation. Continue reading “LEFT UNITY AND THE GENERAL ELECTION  “

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Apr 07 2017


Steve Freeman of the Republican Socialist Alliance and the Left Unity Party draws on the revolutionary democratic political tradition in England, linking the Levellers, the Chartists and the Suffragettes. He outlines its strengths compared with the social democratic and economist political tradition of Labour and most of the British Left sects. Steve argues that Socialists should be championing the revolutionary democratic tradition today.


“Westminster? It’s old, defunct, a waste of time. I hate the place” – Mhairi Black MP *

Westminster does not look or work any better from the inside or the outside. In May 1991 Tony Benn MP proposed fundamental reform. He introduced the Commonwealth of Britain Bill in the House of Commons, intended to make Britain a federal republic. The current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn MP seconded the Bill. The Bill’s first hurdle on the parliamentary road to a republic was to get permission from the Queen to submit it to the Commons. Then there has to be majorities in the Commons, Lords and then finally with the royal assent the Bill becomes law.

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