What about the Protestant working class?: an analysis from 1981


The 1974 strike against power-sharing was far more representative of Protestant working class politics than the Outdoor Relief strike of 1932

The following article appeared in the September 1981 issue of the British Marxist review the next step.  This was one of the few British left publications which understood the importance of the national question in Ireland and the struggle of Irish republicans with the British imperialist state.  Most of the British left preferred to ‘play it safe’ and failed miserably to meet their obligations to support the Irish anti-imperialist movement against the British occupation and the British state.

by Suki Gray and Carol Taggart


Nowhere was last month’s ‘royal’ wedding more enthusiastically celebrated than in Belfast’s Shankill Road and in all the other working class Protestant areas in the six counties.  The loyalist workers are a peculiar phenomenon: Irish workers whose basic allegiance is to the British crown.  During 12 years of war the Protestant workers have formed a solid bloc with their employers and the British state: a million strong, highly armed and organised, an implacable barrier to Irish unity and independence.

The British left retains the prejudice that it is possible to unite Protestant and Catholic workers around ‘bread and butter’ trade union issues.  To refute this notion (dismissed as a “doctrine almost screamingly funny in its absurdity”) and to illustrate the theme developed in the latest issues of Revolutionary Communist Papers, we look at two events to show that Protestant workers’ militancy cannot be transformed into anti-imperialist politics.*

The 1932 outdoor relief strike is often referred to by the British left as the outstanding example of Protestant and Catholic unity around elementary economic issues and quoted as a model to be emulated today: a closer look reveals that it is the exception that proves the rule.  The 1974 Ulster Workers Council strike, by contrast, is never mentioned.  It was, however, a much more significant event, showing the concerted deployment of loyalist working class power in support of unalloyed British imperialist domination.

“We want bread”

In Belfast in 1932 there were 50,000 people out of work.  Endemic unemployment in the Catholic areas was supplemented from the late ‘twenties onwards by rapidly increasng Protestant joblessness.  The world economic crisis devastated Ulster’s traditional industries: Harland and Wolff shipyards had employed 20,000 in 1924 – by 1933 they had only 2,000 men on their books.

The unemployed received ‘outdoor relief’ in return for two-and-a-half days enforced labour in public works schemes.  (The alternative was ‘indoor relief’ in the humiliating austerity of the workhouse.)  The rates were eight shillings a week for a married man plus rigorously means-tested benefits for dependants.  Single men and women, orphans and children got nothing.  These rates and the terms on which they were received were well below British standards.  The unemployed masses of Belfast – Protestant as well as Catholic – were condemned to grinding poverty.

The leading political organisations among the unemployed were the Revolutionary Workers Groups, the nuclei of the Irish Communist Party.  Initially based in the Catholic areas, the RWGs drew more and more Protestants under their influence as they swelled the outdoor relief schemes in 1932.  In October the RWGs called a strike for higher rates of benefits.  Strike leader Tommy Geehan summed up the driving force behind the stoppage: “the fight basically was an elementary fight for the right to live: a fight against death by starvation” (Daily Herald, 18 Nov, 1932).  The main slogan was “We want bread”.

The strike was solid.  Enormous demonstrations took place: when they were met with police baton charges they turned into united Protestant and Catholic riots.  Geehan was ecstatic:

“(T)he past  fortnight will be recorded as a glorious two weeks in the history of the working class struggle.  We saw Roman Catholic and Protestant workers marching together and on Tuesday last we saw them fighting together” (Belfast Newsletter, 13 Oct, 1932).

Some Protestant workers moved into a broader alignment with the Catholics: delegations even appeared at the traditional annual republican commemoration at the Bodenstown grave of Wolfe Tone, the leader of the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798.  But unity in Belfast proved short-lived.

The outdoor relief strike was brought to an end by a combination of repression and concessions.  The British army was called in.  The police banned all marches, drafted 700 extra men into Belfast and equipped them with armoured cars with mounted machine guns: their energies were concentrated in the Catholic ghettos.  By the end of the second week, 100 people – including two strike leaders – were in jail.  Two people were shot dead by the police, and more than 50 suffered gunshot wounds.  Then the local administrators of the relief schemes, the Board of Guardians, offered to double the relief rates, modify the means tests and allow benefits for the single unemployed.  The strikers voted to accept the offer and returned to work.

The Orange card

The Unionist leaders devoted their energies to destroying incipient working class unity.  They used the Loyalist workers’ most precious asset – their privileged position in the labour market – which was being eroded by mass unemployment.  In 1931 the Ulster Protestant League was set up to “safeguard the employment of Protestants”.  At the height of the outdoor relief strike Stormont premier Lord Craigavon, in a dramatic gesture at a meeting of Belfast loyalists, read out a telegram from Mr W. Straker, managing director of a shipbuilding firm, stating his anticipation of orders which would mean employment for many workers.  He meant, of course, Protestant workers (The Times, 13 Oct 1932).  The Grand Master of the Belfast Orange Order proposed the simple slogan “Protestants employ Protestants” (Northern Whig, 28 August 1932).

The call of loyalism prevailed.  Labour and RWG candidates were vanquished by Unionists in the 1933 elections both to the Belfast Corporation and the Board of Guardians.  And sectarian conflict was never far beneath the surface.  When employment began to pick up again in the mid ‘thirties the loyalist workers returned to their natural allegiances.  They celebrated the jubilee of king George V in 1935 with an orgy of sectarian violence leaving a dozen dead and hundreds more homeless.

The outdoor relief strike was a response to conditions of exceptional deprivation.  It was possible for Protestants to participate because it did not challenge the constitutional link of the six counties with Britain.  Moreover, it took place at a time when the Republican Movement, although moving left, was disorientated by the accession of de Valera’s Fianna Fail party to power in 1932.  In the north in particular there was no serious threat to partition.The British Communist Party of the time already tended to exaggerate the significance of the short-lived working class unity: “The big significance of the struggle is that the workers are overcoming their divisions and are fighting unitedly against capitalist robbery and imperialist oppression” (Daily Worker, 12 Oct, 1932).

This was not quite true.  The Belfast unemployed did unite to fight against the “capitalist robbery” of the starvation relief scales.  But they did not unite against the “imperialist oppression” of Ireland by Britain: indeed the strikers’ demand was for parity with British rates of benefit.  The real thrreat of starvation forced working class unity – not against british rule – but to get better terms within it.

However, the British CP’s conclusion was right: “The chief way to help is by declaring in every town and village the firm determination of the British workers to fight for the independence of Ireland and the complete driving out of British imperialism.”

How different from the view of the British left today on the 1932 strike!  For groups such as the Militant Tendency, the SWP and the Spartacist League the strike shows not the need to win the British working class to oppose imperialism but the possibility of building Protestant-Catholic unity around elementary economic issues.  The 1974 Ulster Workers Council strike confirms the bankruptcy of this perspective.

The loyalist coup d’etat

The strike called by the Ulster Workers Council in May 1974 was a response to what the loyalist workers perceived as a threat to the link between the six counties and Britain.  Following the introduction of Direct Rule in 1972 the British government sought ways of making Westminster’s authority more acceptable in the six counties.  The proposals drawn up at the Sunningdale conference in May 1973 for a ‘power-sharing’ executive, bringing together moderate Protestant and Catholic politicians, and a toothless Council of Ireland to involve the Dublin government, were the result.  When this scheme was finally endorsed at Stormont against loyalist resistance the UWC immediately called for a general strike.  At a time when the war against British rule was raging with considerable ferocity, the loyalists perceived ‘power-sharing’ as the thin end of a wedge leading to the ultimate removal of the six counties from the ‘United Kingdom’ and the loss of the Protestants’ privileged status.

The UWC was a coalition of shop stewards, paramilitaries and loyalist politicians. (For a full acclount of the UWC and the strike see Robert Fisk, The point of no return, London, 1975.)  The key trade unionists were Billy Kelly (power station convenor in East Belfast), Harry Murray (shop steward at Harland and Wolff) and Tom Beattie (from the Ballylumford power stattion).  The paramilitaries included Andy Tyrie (Ulster Defence Association), Ken Gibson (Ulster Volunteer Force) and several other leaders of ex-B Specials and local vigilante squads.  The politicians were Ian Paisley (Democratic Unionist Party), Bill Craig (Vanguard) and Harry West (Independent Unionists).    Nobody took much notice of Harry Murray’s general strike call on the evening of 14 May.  But within a fortnight the six counties was at a total standstill.  Official Unionist leader Brian Faulkner had resigned as Stormont prime minister and ‘power-sharing’ was in ruins.

The UWC strike was an impressive display of working class loyalism.  Billy Kelly boasted about the leading role played by the rank-and-file trade union activists: “The upper and middle classes are 100 percent behind us.  The ladies and gentry of Fermanagh and Clounty Down are with us and we have professional people coming and shaking our hands” (Jack Bennett, Northern Ireland: fourteen days of fascist terror, Connolly Publications, no date).

The strike brought to the fore a tradition of radical populism that had been growing in strength in the loyalist working class areas in the preceding years.  Working class Protestants put themselves forward as the most consistent defenders of the Union (between the northeast of Ireland and Britain – blog editor).  They often condemned the bourgeois, petit-bourgeois and even aristocratic unionist politicians for their preparedness to compromise and make concessions to the Catholics.  However, any loyalist politicians who took this populist hostility against the unionist establishment to the extent of fraternising with Irish republicans were dealt with ruthlessly.    Radical UDA men like Ernie Elliot and Tommy Heron were brutally assassinated in 1972 and 1973.

Politics, however, takes second place to military capacity in the organisations of the loyalist working class.  The shop stewards, especially those in the electricity supply industry who cut the power to industry, played an impofrtant role in the UWC strike.  But the paramilitaries took the decisive part.  On the first day of the strike the vast majority of Protestants went to work.  It wasn’t til the UDA and UVF set up road blocks and pickets that the strike became effective.  There was undoubtedly some intimidation; but there was equally undoubtedly general sympathy for the aims of the strike among Protestant workers.

It was their link-up with the paramilitaries that made the shop stewards so effective: their various attempts at political campaigning were a flop.  The predecessor of the UWC – the Loyalist Association of Workers – had tried to initiate economic boycotts directed at the twenty-six counties – in imitation of a time-honoured republican tactic.  But their choice of a campaign against Guiness and their encouragement of Protestants to burn Irish one punt bank notes not surprisingly failed to win popular support.

As for the paramilitary groups, their politics are of little importance to Protestant workers.  Thus the UDA may have a formal policy of support for an independent Ulster; in practice its guns are directed against the Catholics and anybody who makes concessions to them, and that’s what matters to loyalist workers.  Loyalist politicians, by contrast, are not allowed any deviation from unequivocal support for the Union.  William Craig’s Vanguard Party launched a campaign for an independent Ulster and quickly fell into political obscurity.

No surrender

The UWC rapidly became an alternative government.  All requests for exemption from the strike, all arrangements for emergency services, all the day-to-day control of the economic life of the six clounties shifted into its hands.  In recognition of their new status the leading shop stewards designated themselves ‘Minister of Agriculture’, ‘Minister of Fuel and Power’, ‘Minister of Propaganda’, etc.  But the UWC had no intention of seizing state power: its only object was to restore the status quo before ‘power sharing’ – untrammelled British Direct Rule.  As its military wing put it, “. . . if Westminster is not prepared to restore democracy. . . then the only other way it can be restored is by a coup d’etat (Fisk, p33).  The British Army was unable and unwilling to break the UWC strike.  Fearing that the instability in the six counties might increase and spread, Labour prime minister Harold Wilson capitulated and abandoned the whole Sunningdale enterprise.

The UWC strike was a tremendously effective display of rank and file Protestant working class militancy.  Like virtually every major mobilisation of loyalist workers its object was to defend the Union and assert Protestant loyalty to British imperialism.  British reformists always point out examples of Protestant trade union militancy  and Protestant support for protests against the cuts.  But such demonstrations are dwarfed by Orange parades, Paisleyite rallies and marches demanding more repression of the catholics.  The UWC strike confirms that Protestant trade union militancy cannot be transformed into anti-imperialist politics: its whole aim is to sustain imperialism as the force that preserves Protestant control of the labour market in the six counties.  Even in the exceptional conditions of 1932, Protestant militancy fell short of challenging British rule: this is always the limit to radicalism in the loyalist alliance.

Individual Protestants can be won to support the anti-imperialist struggle: many have in the past played a heroic part.  But the loyalist working class will not identify its class interest with Catholic workers until the force that maintains sectarian divisions – British imperialism – is defeated.  Our job in Britain is the same now as in 1932: to win British workers to oppose imperialist oppression – not to chase the chimera of ‘class unity’ in the six counties.

  • Revolutionary Communist Papers #7 contained an important paper by Phil Murphy and Andy Clarkson on the Protestant working class, analysing the materialist basis for its reactionary politics, specifically its allegiance to British imperialism.  I will be typing it up for the blog shortly, although it will take some time to do.

Posted on October 27, 2015, in British state repression (general), Civil rights movement, Democratic rights - general, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Partition, Political education and theory, six counties, Toadyism, Trade unions, Unionism. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Political Tourist

    I wonder if Loyalism would as able to do a 1974 in the 21st Century going by the change in demographics.

  2. Yes, I rather doubt it.

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