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: WORKING CLASS UNITY IN BELFAST’S OUTDOOR RELIEF RIOTS 

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:-

http://www.irishmarxistreview.net/index.php/imr/article/view/247/238

 

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also see:

RED, ORANGE AND BLUE

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

 

Report of the Third Global Commune Event

 

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Nov 07 2017

THE OCTOBER REVOLUTION AND THE FIRST ATTEMPT TO SET UP A POST-NATIONAL WORLD ORDER

This is the second article on this blog addressing the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution (see http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2017/10/21/national-liberation-and-bolshevism-reconsidered-a-view-from-the-borderlands/). It suggests that a wider focus should be taken, situating this event in the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave. This means and looking carefully at other places, showing how Latvia, Finland and Ukraine contributed to this wave. It looks  how decisions taken by the Bolsheviks following the timeline of revolution in Russia sometimes had the effect of thwarting the timelines of revolution elsewhere. This had  negative consequences for the international revolution.

This contribution is taken from is taken from Volume 4, Internationalism form Below: Communists, Nation-States and Nationalism during the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave, by Allan Armstrong.

 

THE OCTOBER REVOLUTION AND THE FIRST ATTEMPT TO SET UP A POST-NATIONAL WORLD ORDER

 

 

 

A. DIFFERING TIMELINES OF REVOLUTION

 i) April 1916 to March 1921 or ‘October’ 1917 to August 1991?

History records that the key political date of the last century was October 25th, 1917. The consequences of the events, which happened on this day, determined a great deal of world politics for more than seventy years – up until the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Elsewhere, in the Western imperial-dominated world October 25th was marked as November 8th. The last Russian Provisional Government of 1917 was overthrown on this date. Nevertheless, the date became universally characterised as the day the ‘October’ Revolution began. This name stuck despite the fact that the victors, the Bolsheviks, soon changed the Russian calendar from the Old Style (O.S.) used in Tsarist Russia to the New Style (N.S.) used in the rest of the Western world. History also places the location of the key events of this day in Petrograd. This city’s name too has been subject to change, earlier from St. Petersburg to Petrograd, then later to Leningrad, and today back to St. Petersburg. Continue reading “THE OCTOBER REVOLUTION AND THE FIRST ATTEMPT TO SET UP A POST-NATIONAL WORLD ORDER”

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Oct 28 2017

AN IRISH LANGUAGE ACT IS FOR EVERYONE

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

 AN IRISH LANGUAGE ACT IS FOR EVERYONE

 

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”

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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.

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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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Jul 08 2017

DURHAM MINERS’ GALA – BIG MEETING GETS BIGGER

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.

 

BIG MEETING GETS BIGGER

 

 

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

NO G20, NO UK – SCOTLAND GOES TO HAMBURG

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. (https://scottishsocialistparty.org/no-g20-no-uk-scotland-goes-hamburg/)

 

NO G20, NO UK – SCOTLAND GOES TO HAMBURG

 

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.

SUMMIT OF REPRESSION

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

VARADKAR ELECTION AS FINE GAEL LEADER SIGNALS FURTHER RIGHT SHIFT

Recently, in France we have see the election of Macron as President, with his new La Republique En Marche party winning a big majority in the French parliamentary elections. This represents one  attempt by the neoliberal Right  to  regain the initiative in the face of Left and populist Right challenges. In Ireland, the election of Leo Varadkar as Fine Gael leader represents another attempt, but within the exiting party set-up to do the same. The neoliberal sections of the media have concentrated their attention on the novel aspects of the two leaders in an attempt to downplay their role in promoting the continued interests of corporate business and support for the existing imperial order. This article from  Socialist Democracy (Ireland) examines the background and politics of Varadkar.

 

LEO VARADKAR ELECTION AS FINE GAEL LEADER SIGNALS FURTHER RIGHT SHIFT

‘King Leo’

The election of Leo Varadkar as Fine Gael leader – and his assumption of the role of Taoiseach – has been hailed as a watershed event in Ireland.  This perspective – which is particularity prevalent in international media coverage – carries the assumption that identity is the overriding factor in contemporary politics.  Within this framework the election of a relatively young gay man of ethnic migrant descent – standing in stark contrast to the profile of leaders that went before – is indeed a seminal event.  The other assumption attached to this identity centred perspective is that a person from such a background will have a more liberal approach to politics.  However, a consideration the record of Leo Varadkar quickly debunks such assumptions. Continue reading “VARADKAR ELECTION AS FINE GAEL LEADER SIGNALS FURTHER RIGHT SHIFT”

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Apr 25 2017

TURKEY – IT’S NOT OVER YET

This article by Even Uslu, a Turkish communist, exposes the fraud  involved in Recep Erdogan’s recent referendum designed to concentrate power in the Turkish Presidency.

TURKEY – IT’S NOT OVER YET

THE AKP GOVERNMENT IS IN CRISIS FOLLOWING THE RIGGED REFERENDUM 

Celebrating amid the fraud

The shambles that followed the April 16 referendum to amend the constitution confirmed the widely held expectations of the left: president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to gain sufficient support for the amendments giving the president huge powers, and have resorted to wide-scale voting fraud. Continue reading “TURKEY – IT’S NOT OVER YET”

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Dec 09 2016

BEFORE AND AFTER THE ‘RETURN OF THE BRUTE’

 

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As the official celebrations and the unofficial commemorations of the centenary of the First World War continue, many personal accounts, poems and novels written about this period have been published or republished. One novel, not yet republished, is Return of the Brute, written by Liam O’Flaherty. David Trotter, in The Cambridge Companion to The Literature of the First World War, argues that, unlike most British war novels, it was written by an author of proletarian origin. Whilst O’Flaherty was Irish, Trotter is right in considering  Return of the Brute to be a British war novel. It is based upon the author’s experiences fighting in the British army on the western front.  The novel “intended to do justice to the brute’s point of view” [1], where the “brute” stands for working-class soldiers. If so, the “brute” refers to atomised, alienated and demoralised workers, brutalised by life on the western front.
Continue reading “BEFORE AND AFTER THE ‘RETURN OF THE BRUTE’”

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