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


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Nov 03 2017


Below is the text of a leaflet by the Campaign for a European Republican Socialist Party. It will be distributed at the  ‘Building Bridges  to Independence’ event on Saturday November 4th. It was written before the Spanish government jailed the Catalan government leadership.



‘Building bridges to independence’ must make bridges to Catalonia central to our campaigning, not only for reasons of solidarity, but because of many parallels and lessons for the Scottish national democratic movement. Continue reading “ALL HAIL THE CATALAN REPUBLIC”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Oct 28 2017


One of the bones in contention between Sinn Fein and the DUP over the suspended Stormont is the Unionists’ refusal to pass a law recognising the Irish language. The Unionists have used their veto within the post-Good Friday Agreement set-up to ensure that British law does not extend to Stormont. Provision was made by Westminster for the Welsh language in 1967 and 1993, and by Holyrood for Scottish Gaelic in 2005. Nevertheless, there has been a constant undercurrent of anti-Welsh and anti-Gaelic attacks from Unionists in these two countries too. Given that reactionary unionism currently dominates UK politics, it is well to take notice of what is happening in Northern Ireland, particularly with the Tory government dependent on the DUP.

However, the article below, written by Fergus O’Hare takes a much broader view of why Irish (and by implication) other minority languages are important for the whole of humankind. Fergus was very active as a Peoples Democracy member in the Northern Irish Civil Rights Movement, and later in the Northern Resistance Movement. In 1981 he was elected to Belfast City Council.  Later he became the headteacher  of Northern Ireland’s first Irish language secondary school, Colaiste Feirste, and was involved in Radio Failte, the first legal Irish language station in Northern Ireland.


“It is well to remember that nations which submit to conquest or races which abandon their language in favour of that of an oppressor do so, not because of altruistic motives, or because of the love of the brotherhood of man, but from a slavish and cringing spirit. From a spirit which cannot exist side by side with the revolutionary idea.”

James Connolly

Belfast demonstration in support of the Irish language



The current opposition to an Irish Language Act has been fueled to a large extent by ignorance and bigotry. An Irish Language Act is not just needed for Irish speakers and learners or lovers of the Irish language. It is needed for everyone. It is needed for society.

In modern liberal and democratic societies many activities are supported, promoted and paid for from public funds, not because they are used by everyone in society or even by a majority in society but because they are not. Many artistic, sporting and other activities have minority followings but in a mature and inclusive society they are supported by taxpayers money or through other official support mechanisms because such a society recognises that all our lives can be enriched and made more interesting when a variety of interests and activities, even those of minority interest, are catered for and supported. Continue reading “AN IRISH LANGUAGE ACT IS FOR EVERYONE”

Tags: ,

Oct 23 2017


Northern Ireland is one part of the UK state where the reactionary unionism which has come to dominate politics since the Brexit referendum has a much longer history. The coalescence of the reactionary unionism which underpins the Tory Party and that of the DUP has now taken the shape of a governmental alliance, headed by Teresa May and Arlene Forster,

The implications of this are shown in the two articles below, both form the latest Socialst Democracy (Ireland) bulletin The first shows how the DUP are complicit in helping the Loyalists further their longstanding policy of ethnic cleansing. The recent election of Emma Little-Pengelly as DUP MP at Westminster has been followed by a campaign to remove Catholic residents from a previously shared housing scheme  in her South Belfast constituency (until recently held by the moderate nationalist SDLP).

The second article highlights the inevitable trajectory towards a hard border in Ireland under Brexit. The DUP which supports Brexit (a minority position in Northern Ireland) claims it doe not want a hard border. If pushed, it would probably say it didn’t want ethnic cleansing in Belfast either ( if Catholics would just accept a second class status).  But maintaining support for Unionist supremacy, which means retaining the support of Loyalism, means that the reality on the ground is very different from DUP public statements made for the benefit of a wider media. 



South Belfast Loyalists from ‘Village Team On Tour’.

For most of 2017 the Irish peace process has been in crisis and the northern assembly collapsed. There are frantic calls for restoration and both Sinn Fein and the DUP proclaim that their one desire is to agree a new executive. Continue reading “NORTHERN IRELAND UPDATE – THE IMPACT OF REACTIONARY UNIONISM”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Oct 17 2017


In the aftermath of the Catalan referendum, Steve Freeman emphasis the republican aspect of the struggle.




The demonstration organised by the Radical Independence Campaign at the Spanish Consulate in Edinburgh on October 1st.


Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, took a cautious line on Catalan independence. She hoped that “dialogue will replace confrontation”. She called for a way forward that “respects the rule of law” and also “respects democracy”. She refused to say if the Scottish government would recognise the result of the disputed referendum. She told Andrew Marr: “I consider myself a friend of Spain”.

Spain is nothing in this context but its ruling class exercising political power through its crowned, unionist, ‘Francoist’ state. Sturgeon is giving comfort to the enemies of the Catalan people in the hope they will be more favourable to the Scottish government’s quest for independence under the crown. The leaders of the Scottish National Party want to keep friends with the queen of England and the king of Spain. Continue reading “THE CATALAN REPUBLIC”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sep 20 2017


John Tummon of the Republican Socialist Alliance takes us through the distinction between the Crown Corporation and the Royal Family Limited, and shows how together, they perform a key role in maintaining the power of The City and the imperialist interests of the British ruling class.


The Coat of Arms of the City of London



    1. The UK’s unwritten system of government, which was once for many a source of pride, has become a source of confusion and embarrassment. It is not just that the rules can be changed or even ignored by any government with a bare parliamentary majority, but that the adequacy and appropriateness of those rules – even, at times, their continued applicability – has come into question. Theresa May’s proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act and the Miller judgment’s interpretation of the Sewel convention (which in normal circumstances prohibits the UK Parliament from legislating on devolved matters) show the fragility and inadequacy of an unwritten constitution. Opportunistic manipulation of the Fixed-term Parliament Act only adds to the sense of a system of government in disarray.



Tags: , ,

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”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Aug 06 2017


The following article by Allan Armstrong was a first posted on the bella caledonia blog at:-




Trump has tweeted his opposition to Scottish independence. “Is Scotland going for the vote, by the way. It would be terrible. They just went through hell”. Hell being IndyRef1, and not the Brexit campaign that contributed to the murder of Jo Cox MP, and Jacub Rusiecki, factory worker, or the suicide of 16 year old Dagmara Przybysz after racist bullying; nor the spike in physical attacks and racist harassment following the Brexit vote, Trump supported Brexit and saw his own election to the US presidency as ‘Brexit plus, plus, plus’. Continue reading “TRUMP SAYS, “SCOTLAND JUST WENT THROUGH HELL””

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Aug 04 2017


Throughout the life of this blog, we have been posting material about Ireland/Northern Ireland. The British ruling class has always taken a keen interest in developments there. However, such is the nature of the unionist state, that British governments have been successful for most of the time, in getting people in England, Scotland and Wales to view the situation as being  ‘over there’ and somehow disconnected from what happens ‘over here’. Now that May has made a deal with the DUP to keep the Tories in office, it becomes even more important to understand what is happening within the UK state we live in. Below we are posting three articles from Socialist Democracy (Ireland). The first two look at the reality of the ‘Twelfth’ in Northern Ireland. The third looks at the likely impact of the DUP’s entry into mainstream British politics.




The ‘Twelfth’ bonfire in Belfast


In July Channel 4 sent a reporter to Belfast to investigate the annual bonfire bacchanalia of the “Eleventh Night” preceding the Orange marches. She walked about conducting “vox pop” interviews, meanwhile expressing concern at the background sectarianism and atmosphere of violence. Then she saw something she found incomprehensible. A bonfire was burning too close to buildings, but the fire service was hosing the buildings, not the bonfire.

This is a standard element of bonfire night. Last year two houses burnt to the ground without any attempt to douse the bonfire.

It tells us something important. The problem is not the obvious one of a sectarian bonfire. The problem is the sectarian state. The significance of the Eleventh bonfires lies in the fact that they occur immune from the normal constraints of a democratic state – in the almost complete absence of any restraint.  In fact that is the main point of the bonfires. The yearly event shows those at the bottom of the unionist all-class alliance that they remain kings of creation and the state forces and legal system will bend to their will as the police, fire, environmental agencies and local media recuse themselves from involvement.

This presents no problem at all to unionist politicians, who defend “Protestant culture” and have been recorded lighting the bonfires and winking at the many expressions of sectarian hatred heaped on the fire. It does represent a problem for Sinn Fein. How can we be “moving on” if the sectarian culture remains?

In response the nationalists have used their position in negotiations, in the executive and in local government to try on the one hand to persuade the state to set minimal red lines and on the other to bribe the Orange to behave better.

This strategy arrived at farcical limits in 2017.  Belfast City Council bonfire management policy turned out to extend to storing wood for the fires. It then appeared that many of the wooden pallets they were storing were stolen property. An embarrassing situation was resolved when an illegal paramilitary gang, linked to the government party, the DUP, stole the materials back again, although there was further embarrassment when a public car park was requisitioned by the gang to store the loot.

An angry Sinn Fein tried to rescue their reputation by obtaining an injunction to limit the height of two bonfires. The injunction was neither enforced nor obeyed. They then forced a by-law through Belfast City Council with powers to seize bonfire materials.

However by this stage the loyalist bonfire demonstrations were over and in any case there is no chance of council action against the Orange next year in the face of absolute opposition by the Unionist parties. In the meantime the occupants of Belfast city centre flats found that the authorities, so active in facilitating the fires, denied responsibility for the damage to their homes from a nearby fire.

Sinn Fein found themselves in a familiar situation of setting an example by confronting the supporters of Nationalist bonfires. Again this did not end well. They were forced to concede to a large contingent of nationalist youth in Derry and in Belfast there were riots and repetition of threats from Sinn Fein “socialists” that the parents of the youths involved would be evicted. However the chaotic resentment of the poorest sectors fell far short of providing a political opposition to nationalist complacency.

It should be pointed out that the Sinn Fein policy towards nationalist bonfires is quite different to the policy towards the Orange. They recognise “Orange Culture.” They do not want to prevent the bonfires but replace them with braziers and “Orangefest” activities.

On the other hand they utterly oppose commemoration of the introduction of internment without trial by the British. The alternative offered to the nationalist youth is the summer schools and discos – not alternative methods of defiance but to accept pacification, Sinn Fein’s view is that the national question has been resolved and that we now live in the best of all possible worlds.

The reformist socialist groups hardly covered themselves in glory. The Socialist Party yet again announced its neutrality by denouncing all …ALL… sectarianism from ALL sides. When the council initiative was announced they did not demand that council workers be protected in carrying out their duties but that they should not be “put in the front line.” The SWP supported Sinn Fein, under the illusion that putting “trade union and community” at the end of a resolution made it left wing. They demurred from the eviction threats, arguing that more social services were the answer, but held to their position that there was no political justification for these sorts of nationalist demonstrations in the new Northern Ireland.

The socialist position surely, is basically a democratic one. If people want to commemorate with bonfires they should have them. They would have to be held away from buildings and laws relating to incitement of racism, sectarianism and the issue of environmental controls should apply.

If the organisers of bonfires are exempt from law and regulation then that is because we live in a sectarian state. Socialists should oppose the state, not wring their hands in the ashes of the fires.


This article was first posted at:-



Emma Little Pengelly supports the flying of UVF flags over houses in South Belfast


Triangle of hate – or is it a quadrilateral?

The DUP-Conservative party pact in Britain led to a greater than usual focus on Orange demonstrations in Ireland and to expressions of horror and disgust at what was observed. There was widespread horror at the expressions of sectarian and racist hatred around the Orange celebrations, combined with incredulity at the impunity of the organisers in relation to fire safety and pollution laws and the collaboration of local councils in paying grants and storing wood. Continue reading “TAKING A CLOSER LOOK AT THE REALITY OF NORTHERN IRELAND”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Next Page »