Barriers to worker unity

The 1907 strike in Belfast united Protestant and Catholic workers but by 1913 the sectarian divide was a barrier too strong to breach, writes Peter Collins

During the century after the Act of Union, the population of Belfast grew from 30,000 to 400,000. It was an industrial giant with a diversity of industries, as well as the principal ones of linen, shipbuilding and engineering. The recently completed City Hall was a symbol of Belfast’s civic and commercial pride, described by EM Forster as, “a costly Renaissance pile, which shouts ‘Dublin can’t beat me’ from all its pediments and domes”.

There was an element of schadenfreude in Belfast over the Dublin Lockout, no doubt sharpened by irreconcilable views on Home Rule. Nevertheless, the industrial turmoil experienced in Belfast in 1907 was still a vivid memory.

Jim Larkin came to Belfast to reorganise the local branch of the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL). This had been defunct since 1892, after a failed strike, largely due to sectarian divisions among the workers.

Almost inevitably he was brought into conflict with Belfast’s leading capitalist, Thomas Gallaher, in many respects the precursor of William Martin Murphy. Aside from his huge tobacco business he had many other interests and was chairman of the Belfast Steamship Company. Like Murphy, he persuaded many other employers to band against Larkin’s unionisation of unskilled workers in the city.


In many ways the 1907 Belfast Dockers and Carters’ strike bore striking similarities to the Dublin Lockout. The same conditions were imposed on the men to either give up the union or lose their jobs. The strike brought Belfast to a standstill for four months and Larkin managed for a time to unite Protestant and Catholic workers. The employers brought in blackleg labour who had to have police protection.

This additional pressure on the RIC led to a police strike, which was certainly not emulated by the Dublin Metropolitan Police in 1913. The alarmed authorities brought in the military to aid the civil power. Inevitably this led to clashes with the strikers and their supporters.

During rioting on the nationalist Falls Road, two young Catholics were shot dead. The unionist press cited this as evidence of Larkin’s underlying motives, namely to harm the prosperity of unionist Belfast. The employers, with their deep pockets, were able to hold out longer than the strikers and their families, especially after the NUDL withdrew strike pay.

The strikers had to return to work, cap in hand, but not all were reinstated. A year after the Belfast debacle Larkin cut his ties with the NUDL and set up the Irish Transport Workers’ Union (ITGWU).

Belfast was linked to the Dublin lockout, through James Connolly, who had been sent by Larkin in 1911 to organise the ITGWU among the many unskilled workers in the city. He had some success in organising the dockers, though mainly those in the Catholic-dominated deep-sea docks. The Protestant cross-channel dockers were mostly in the NUDL.

British-based unions, were strong among the mainly protestant skilled workers in the city’s shipyards and engineering works. Belfast Trades Council had been marginalised due to its protests at the workplace expulsions of Catholics and Protestant socialists the previous summer.

Nevertheless, Connolly affiliated the ITGWU to the council in order to play a part in the wider trade union movement. He also aimed to wean socialists in the city from the labour unionism of William Walker.

Connolly was asked by women linen workers to organise a union for them. They were being penalised by fines for infringement of workplace regulations. He was accused of poaching by Mary Galway, formidable secretary of the Irish Textile Operatives’ Society.

The resulting split in the trades council was exacerbated by the controversy between Connolly and Walker on socialism and nationalism in the socialist paper, Forward. The split became deeper still when Connolly and Larkin were instrumental in the setting up of the Irish Labour Party in 1912, in anticipation of a Home Rule parliament. This was anathema to the Walkerites and the vast majority of trade unionists in Belfast.

Connolly also had the dubious privilege of being denounced from both Catholic and Protestant pulpits for his activities.

Joe Devlin, Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) MP for West Belfast, claimed that his party represented the workers and there was no need for a Labour Party.

Labour responded by citing the IPP’s blocking of the extension of the medical benefits of the 1911 National Insurance Act, to Ireland.

In 1913, Connolly was called to Dublin to join the leadership of the locked-out workers. Despite the misgivings of some, Belfast Trades Council was persuaded to support the locked-out workers by Keir Hardie, who had come directly from Dublin.

Thomas Johnson, later first leader of the Labour Party in Dáil Éireann, was a supporter of Connolly in Belfast. He and his wife Marie toured England, addressing meetings and collecting funds for the Dublin families. Some elements of Belfast ITGWU took sympathetic action against goods destined for Dublin, but were defeated by the use of blacklegs. Connolly’s exploits in Dublin increased his notoriety in Belfast, especially when he was jailed and subsequently went on hunger strike. Following his release, he returned to Belfast. At the GNR station, he had to be spirited away to avoid a loyalist mob, some of whom were firing pistols.

Connolly was more and more being forced to confine his activities to the Catholic ghetto. But even there, his meetings were subject to attack by Devlinite mobs. Devlin was chairman of the Irish News and, as the Lockout progressed, the paper carried hostile stories especially around the disastrous attempt to send children of locked-out workers to England.

Belfast did well commercially as an alternative port to locked-out Dublin. End-of-year reports by enterprises such as the Great Northern Railway Company and the Harbour Board, showed a significant boost to profits. There was no such cheer for Connolly. Demoralised by the workers’ eventual defeat in the Lockout, and disillusioned with his failure to make inroads into the sectarianised working class of Belfast, he was glad to move to Dublin when Larkin left for America in 1914. Dr Peter Collins is senior lecturer in history, St Mary’s University College Belfast