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 08 2015

SAVING STORMONT: THE LAST HURRAH?

The RCN has continually emphasised the significance of political developments in Northern Ireland. In contrast to England and Wales, where conservative unionism remains dominant, and Scotland where a hybrid constitutional nationalism/liberal unionism is dominant, in Northern Ireland reactionary unionism has become the predominant political force. Together the Ulster unionist parties and the loyalists been able to push back the post-1997 Good Friday Agreement component of the UK state’s ‘New Unionist’ Peace Process and Devolution-all-round settlement. UKIP intends to use this model to extend its own reactionary unionist offensive across the UK.  This article, from Socialist Democracy (Ireland)  shows how the UK state has used the Ulster unionists’ current offensive directed against Sinn Fein, to further its austerity programme, in return for more political concessions to entrench the political position of reactionary unionists and loyalists. 

Ultra-sectarian Ruth Patterson of the DUP challenges party leader, Peter Robinson. from the further Right

Ultra-sectarian Ruth Patterson of the DUP challenges party leader, Peter Robinson. from the further Right

SAVING STORMONT: THE LAST HURRAH

The results of the report by a British government monitoring panel caused bemusement among observers inside and outside Ireland. Following the statement of a few truisms – the IRA still exist, the loyalist gangs are still active – the Democratic Unionist Party, who had been blocking the operation of the local Assembly by resigning their positions and re-appointing themselves in a weekly cycle, returned to their positions full-time.
Continue reading “SAVING STORMONT: THE LAST HURRAH?”

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Sep 25 2014

TWO ARTICLES ON NORTHERN IRELAND

Category: Against Unionism,IrelandRCN @ 2:34 pm

 We are printing two articles from the Socialist Democracy (Ireland) website examining aspects of politics in Northern Ireland:- 

1. Peter Robinson repudiates peace deal. Another step towards the abyss.

2. Paisley, the chief bigot is dead. The sectarian state lives on.

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1. PETER ROBINSON REPUDIATES THE PEACE DEAL. ANOTHER STEP TOWARDS THE ABYSS

Peter Robinson shows his wholehearted support for the Peace Process!

Peter Robinson shows his wholehearted support for the Peace Process!

 

The statement by the North’s first minister Peter Robinson that the local administration is “not fit for purpose” and that the St. Andrew ‘s agreement, on which the current settlement rests, must be renegotiated has brought cries of horror from the press and from London and Dublin governments who have been accommodating an accelerating slide to the right by unionism.

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Aug 10 2014

THE FURTHER DECLINE OF THE ‘NEW UNIONIST’ SETTLEMENT IN NORTHERN IRELAND

In the following two articles from Socialist Democracy (Ireland), John McAnulty of chronicles the further decline of the ‘New Unionist’ settlement in Northern Ireland.

 

1) ON THE RUNS – CONCESSIONS TO SINN FEIN WERE MERE SMOKE AND MIRRORS

Lady Justice Hallet, author of 'On the Runs'

Lady Justice Hallet, author of ‘On the Runs’

 

When Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss was nominated to head an enquiry into child sexual abuse by leading politicians, there was an outcry that objected to her on the grounds of her position within the establishment. The victims objected to a “safe pair of hands” guiding the enquiry.

Continue reading “THE FURTHER DECLINE OF THE ‘NEW UNIONIST’ SETTLEMENT IN NORTHERN IRELAND”

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May 13 2014

ADAMS ARREST – Sinn Fein responds to British attacks by calls to the dark side

 John McAnulty of Socialist Democracy (Ireland) outlines what was behind the arrest of Gerry Adams by the PSNI, and why Sinn Fein is unable to respond to this British state initiated event.

 

Gerry Adams arrested by PSNI with British state backing

Gerry Adams arrested by PSNI with British state backing

 

When Sinn Fein claim that the arrest of Gerry Adams is a political act they are clearly correct. The arrest of former IRA leader Ivor Bell and then Adams on the basis of tape recordings that cannot possibly be the basis of prosecution in relation to a killing whose evidential base is buried 42 years in the past, all on the eve of election where Sinn Fein hope to establish themselves as a major party in the 26 county Irish state, poised for entry into coalition government in the next general election, is clearly political and could not have taken place without the knowledge of the British government. The failure of Sinn Fein to follow the logic of this analysis shows just how helpless they now are in the face of a new offensive.

Continue reading “ADAMS ARREST – Sinn Fein responds to British attacks by calls to the dark side”

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Feb 07 2014

HUMAN RIGHTS ARE UNDER THREAT IN NORTH OF IRELAND


New York based Sandy Boyer is the co-host of “Radio Free Eireann” broadcast Saturdays at 1pm on WBAI, 99.5 FM, or wbai.org. He has helped to mobilize support for political prisoners including Marian Price, Roisin McAliskey, the Birmingham 6, Pol Brennan and Joe Doherty. Here he outlines the continued threat to human rights in Northern Ireland.

 

Fifteen years ago, the Good Friday Agreement promised a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. Today there is still no Bill of Rights, and human rights are under a severe and sustained attack.

Continue reading “HUMAN RIGHTS ARE UNDER THREAT IN NORTH OF IRELAND”

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Dec 19 2013

UNIONISM PUSHES THE IRISH ‘PEACE PROCESS’ FURTHER TO THE SECTARIAN RIGHT

Below are three articles from the Socialist Democracy (Ireland) website highlighting the role of Loyalism and mainstream Ulster Unionism, aided by the UK government in pushing the Good Friday Agreement  further to the sectarian right. Underscoring the UK state’s own declining imperial role, Richard Haas, the unofficial US representative has been drawn in to help them.

These articles also highlight the role of the Catholic Church and middle class, who go along with this, in return for  official state recognition and their cut of  state backed sectarian funding and job allocation. Sinn Fein, in its adopted role of making the UK-state brokered settlement work, is is central to this process  too. The last article also highlights the methods the UK state  is prepared to resort to, whenever it feels threatened.

 

1. HAAS TALKS DEBACLE – Decay of the Irish Peace Process accelerates

Gerry Adams and Gerry Kelly, Sinn Fein, look disconsolate after the collapse of the Haas Talks.

Gerry Adams and Gerry Kelly, Sinn Fein, look disconsolate after the collapse of the Haas Talks.

 

The debacle of the Haass talks collapse, on the early morning of New Year’s Eve, marked a growing instability in local political structures. The talks were supposed to settle conflicts in the Irish peace process and their outcome was somewhat obscured by a persistent failure to tell Irish workers anything about their contents and by a torrent of lies from the British and Irish media, talking the negotiations up while the talks were ongoing and suggesting after the fall that the collapse contained elements of progress.

Continue reading “UNIONISM PUSHES THE IRISH ‘PEACE PROCESS’ FURTHER TO THE SECTARIAN RIGHT”

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Dec 23 2012

THE PAT FINUCANE CASE – ANOTHER STATE COVER-UP

John McAnulty (Socialist Democracy – Ireland) writes about the broader implications of the British government’s De Silva Report into the killing of the Nationalist lawyer, Pat Finucane, murdered by UDA members.

DE SILVA REPORT: ANOTHER BUCKET OF WHITEWASH IN THE FINUCANE CASE

Pat Finucane mural

Pat Finucane mural

There is really no excuse for confusion about the role of investigations and enquiries held by the British state into itself. They are given into a safe pair of hands.  Where possible, wrongdoing is denied. Where it is not possible a formula is found to limit the damage.

Continue reading “THE PAT FINUCANE CASE – ANOTHER STATE COVER-UP”

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Sep 12 2012

SHADOW DANCER

By the early 1990s it was apparent that the IRA had been militarily defeated by the British. The fantasy that an organisation of a few hundred active members could beat a professional army of tens of thousands backed up a a massive police and intelligence apparatus was laid bare. The resulting demoralisation made it very easy for MI5 and the RUC to recruit informers. Depending on which estimate you accept it’s claimed that between 20% to 30% of the organisation’s members were providing information to the police or MI5, a weakness that seemed to become more common in the upper reaches. Freddie Scappaticci, who had a key role in the IRA’s counter intelligence section, fed information over a number of years which resulted in the arrests and assassinations of people who considered him a comrade. These jailings and killings enabled the British to prune the Republican leadership by getting rid of its most uncompromising members and, as the accounts of Scappaticci’s story reveal, they were willing to approve the murders of large numbers of unconnected people to preserve their informants. Such is the moral high ground of imperialism.

This is the squalid, treacherous setting of the new film Shadow Dancer. Whatever the intention of its writer Tom Bradby, a former ITN journalist, it may be the first film ever made in which the hero is a relentlessly determined IRA counter-intelligence officer.

Continue reading “SHADOW DANCER”

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Mar 20 2009

Inside Ulster Loyalism

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 17RCN @ 2:24 pm

by Ed Walsh – Irish Socialist Network (first published in Resistance no. 8)

UVF: The Endgame (Poolbeg, 2008) by Jim Cusack & Henry McDonald

Jim Cusack and Henry McDonald are well placed to tell the story of the UVF, having spent decades building up contacts inside the loyalist scene. If you want to know what happened over the last forty years in the North, this is a very useful book. If you want to know why it happened you may need to take the authors’ political analysis with a pinch of salt.

The two writers are keen to downplay evidence of collusion between the British state and loyalist paramilitaries. While they acknowledge that members of the RUC and UDR gave assistance to the loyalist groups, the authors deny that collusion was systematic. Cusack and McDonald give us a stark choice – either the loyalist paramilitaries were sock-puppets of the British state, or else they must have been completely autonomous. But there’s another way of looking at things which is far more convincing: the UVF and the UDA may have a life of their own, but their effectiveness during the Troubles would have been limited if the state forces had dealt with them as they dealt with the Provos. The spectrum of collusion could range from active support (of which there was plenty) to helpful neglect.

The authors also stress their view that loyalist opposition to a united Ireland would have been strong enough to block its realisation, even if the London authorities had been keen to withdraw. There is no way of proving this claim right or wrong, since London never had any intention of withdrawing and was prepared to commit vast resources to contain and defeat the IRA. Again, Cusack and McDonald are trying to lead us back to the false notion that Britain was a neutral player in the conflict. That said there can be no question that the strength of unionist belief in the North (often intensified by IRA attacks on Protestant civilians) is the most important prop for what remains of British rule in Ireland.

At one point the authors accuse Sinn Fein of taking a Jesuitical approach to the consent principle. But you need a bit of mental gymnastics to pick your way around the issue of partition. In principle, it’s wrong to suggest that partition of Ireland has a democratic basis (it was imposed by the crudest form of military aggression and based on sectarian gerrymandering – the Northern state has a unionist majority because it was designed that way, just like the Serb Republic in Bosnia or the Turkish enclave in northern Cyprus). In practice, however, its hard to imagine an end to partition before a large number of Ulster Protestants are convinced they have nothing to fear if British rule ends.

Some left-wingers would rather kick the national question into touch and concentrate on other matters. The experience of the UVF itself suggests why this approach is likely to founder. Cusack and McDonald describe the post-ceasefire attempt to build a working-class unionist force with a progressive line on social and economic issues that was spearheaded by David Ervine and Gusty Spence. They don’t spend much time, however, asking why that attempt failed. The majority of working-class Protestants have continued to vote for the DUP, despite its right-wing economic policies, while the Progressive Unionist Party {linked to the UVF} has failed.

The authors note that Ervine, Spence and Billy Hutchison never convinced the UVF rank-and-file to adopt their left-of-centre agenda. But talk of socialism and class politics was hardly going to blend with loyalty to a capitalist, imperialist state and its institutions. The British Labour Party has always been crippled by its submission to a political order shaped by ruling class interests. The PUP’s support for British nationalism is an even greater hindrance to any progressive ideas its leaders may have wanted to advance. You can cheer the troops returning home from the colonial occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, as so many Protestant workers did before Christmas – but ultimately you are cheering a system that inflicts 40% unemployment on the people of West Belfast, regardless of their communal identity

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