Freedom, Strikes and Anniversaries

There is almost always some opportunity to commemorate or celebrate some event of the past, whatever day, month or year one chooses. Traditions, links, memories and family connections are maintained by bringing them to the fore again and looking at them from a current perspective.

Much attention of late has been centred on the abolition of the slave trade, a culmination of twenty years of effort in the UK by William Wilberforce MP, his perseverance rewarded by achieving the passing of an Act of Parliament in 1807.

Newspapers, magazine, television and radio programmes have researched the background extensively. Demands and requests have been voiced for apologies to be made by both church and state to the descendants of the slaves and to African states for the centuries during which the vile trade flourished.

It is difficult to see how present and even some past generations can be held responsible for its existence. In Britain, Ireland and Western Europe, which benefitted from the trade, universal suffrage and democratic government only came into existence early in the twentieth century.

So even if some general benefit could have percolated down to the toiling mass of the propertyless and exploited general public they could hardly be held to blame. Indeed, many of them will surely have signed or made their mark on the petitions organised by the abolitionists.

Another anniversary which occurs this year is of course the 300th of the Union of Scotland and England in 1707 which is coincidental with the impending election to the devolved Scottish Parliament and may resonate during the hustings in the next four weeks.

I am indebted to an article by Pat Burke in the March 14 – April 4 2007 edition of The Issue, the Irish version of The Big Issue reminding us that this year is also the 100th anniversary of the great Belfast dock strike of 1907.

It is one of the paradoxes in Northern Ireland that parallel to the strong political Unionism there was and still is a very strong trade union tradition.

This was personified in Ireland and in Belfast in particular in 1907 where they had links and membership with the Dockers Union from other parts of the UK. It was the time of the dockers’ demand for 6p an hour, the ‘Dockers Tanner’. I recall that Ernest Bevin was one of its leaders in Britain at that time – he is also remembered as British Foreign Secretary in the post World War 2 Labour government.

Jim Larkin was the leading figure in Ireland along with his Belfast colleague, Alex Boyd (no relation) in the movement to improve the lot of working dockers.

Pat Burke relates how first skirmishes began on Sam Kelly’s coal quay on April 26th (my birthday 12 years later) when the dockers there walked out. An attempt to fire some union members was quickly reversed, a pay rise was granted and the union was recognised.

However, the dispute developed further when the Belfast Steamship Company tried to introduce non union labour, specially drafted in from England, in an attempt to break the union. This was fiercely resisted by the organised employees who walked of the job on May 26th. Their employer, Gallaghers Tobacco Company, then retaliated by locking them out.

Jim Larkin, a formidable speaker, was to the fore addressing huge crowds of the strikers and supporters at the dockside sheds and the Custom House steps.

There were three demands:
1. Freedom to join a union.
2. A wage rate of 6p an hour.
3. The removal of the strike breakers.

Burke says that only one employer was prepared to negotiate on these terms. He doesn’t say which. I suspect and seem to remember reading it somewhere that it was Sam Kelly.

As Burke says, the government of the day, conscious of the political and religious divisions, played this card and Larkin was denigrated as a Fenian Catholic troublemaker. So the burden of leadership was shifted to his colleague, Alex Boyd, who in Northern Ireland terms kicked with the other foot.

Burke also writes that a constable in the RIC refused to accompany a ‘blackleg’ carter to the docks. In July dissident members of the force became seriously disaffected and demanded better pay and conditions – eight hundred marched in support to the Custom House.

One organisation which crossed the sectarian divide then, and despite many difficulties does so today was the Belfast Trades Council, composed of delegates of the different union branches. It organised a mass demonstration of up to 100,000 people who marched along Sandy Row, a Protestant Unionist stronghold, to the Falls Road, the Catholic Nationalist equivalent, and to the Shankill Road, the other Protestant stronghold.

This cross-community unity put the government in a panic and five thousand troops were drafted in to prepare for possible riots which their presence, through billeting arrangements in West Belfast, helped to engender. They had opened fire, killing two civilians and seriously wounding several more.

Support from British trade unions for the two leaders, Larkin and Boyd, was withdrawn. The gains and unity of the strikers were soon dissipated and five months of activity tailed off. The ‘divide and rule’ policy had triumphed again.

In Dublin six years later another strike of significance occurred, an indication of the underlying problems for working people all over Ireland at the time. Of course it was without the sectarian undertones which were used to disrupt and undermine the unity which had been established in Belfast.

This was the 1913 tram workers strike which disrupted transport services. During its extended life of many weeks the strikers suffered great deprivation, starvation and hardship.

This strike is often forgotten and the Citizens’ Army set up to defend the unions aqainst attacks was subsumed into the Easter Rising which took place three years later in April 1916.

One aspect of all this I know of which is a sad reflection of the attitudes of the time. Trade unions and labour organisations in England offered to take the children into their homes to feed and clothe them and to relieve them from the effects of the strike.

Arrangements were made for this to take place on a mass scale. At the last moment The Catholic Church leaders intervened expressing their fears that the faith of the children might be contaminated by contact with other religious organisations.

As i sat down to record and comment another anniversary came to mind. Certainly worthy of recalling and noting the event took place, not a century or more ago, but a mere seventy five years and in my own lifetime.

This was the relief workers strike of 1932 in Belfast involving a cross community organisation, the Unemployed Workers Movement, a combination of political groups including the Communist Party, the Labour Party, the Belfast trades council and others.

I was at school aged thirteen when this occurred and read many accounts, concocted in the newspapers of the day, of ‘husky-voiced Russians’ being involved in leading the strike. To be fair to those newsheets, they stopped short of claiming that they knew their nationality by the presence of snow on their boots!

These same newspapers I recall, during the lean thirties, regularly claimed that the shipyards were about to start building ships again – every week or so.These stories were, of course, as fictional as those published about the relief workers strike.

I cannot remember how long the strike lasted, but at the time it transcended the sectarian divide. The authorities drafted police reinforcements from the country districts, fearing that they could not rely on the city force, the members of which might have sympathy with the strikers.

The ‘B Specials’ were also mobilised and I recall seeing the ‘Cage Cars’ on the streets as partial curfews were applied across some areas of the city.

Barricades were erected by some residents in many areas as the strike developed. However, unlike those of the past and those erected in the troubled period which erupted in the late 60s and now hopefully terminated, these barricades were joint efforts against police intrusion and not between communities. Indeed, the Shankill and the Falls were united against the forces being deployed aimed at undermining the solidarity of the strikers.

This dispute was not of an industrial nature. In a true political sense it was against the government, not just the one at Stormont but the so called ‘National Government’ at Westminster.

This government, spawned into existence by the betrayal of the Labour leader, Ramsay McDonald, had, as an economic cost cutting measure, reduced wages and benefits by 10% and instituted the iniquitous ‘Means Test’.

The strikers were unemployed men who had been drafted to what was termed ‘Relief Work’. This was funded by the state but they were expected to work at road works etc. for little more than benefits, having exhausted their entitlement to unemployment pay.

They were people used to trade union organisation and were not simply those in casual activity or labouring tasks – many of them were skilled craftsmen.

I recall and heard accounts of an attack by the Police on a peaceful march by strikers who had their wives and children with them. This was in Temperance Avenue in East Belfast, about ten minutes from where I used to live and grew up.

The march had been prohibited by the Northern Ireland Minister for Home Affairs, Sir Dawson Bates, He had instructed the Police to break it up so they baton charged the marchers as they entered Temperance Avenue.

Some years later I personally met one of those men. He had been struck by a police baton and had successfully sued for compensation by proving that there had been no disorder and that the strikers were already dispersing when the police attacked.

The recent moves aiming to re‑establish devolved government and the Joint Executive were based on the support of the two communities. I can’t help recalling how my elder brother, Tom Boyd MP, along with others in the Nationalist community, negotiated a settlement of the 1932 strike with improved benefits. For over seventy years he sought to encourage cooperation across the divide. How he might wonder if he was still alive that it has taken so long for the penny to drop.

In my formative years in Belfast I myself played a modest role. I joined the Amalgamated Engineering Union on the 8th of July 1935. I spent 40 years with the AEU as a lay officer including three years as a part‑time District Secretary in England. I have now clocked up almost 72 years continuous membership through its several mergers, the latest being that of AMICUS with the TGWU.

When I attended the 1947 Irish Trade Union Congress (now the Congress of Irish Unions) as a delegate I remember the son of Jim Larkin and the son of James Connolly putting in an appearance.

There is ample scope now for trade unionists across the North and the Republic to consolidate across the communities and to advance the cause of working people irrespective of race or creed.

©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, South Wales, 4 April 2007.

Samuel H. Boyd