By Ciaran Crossey
BARRICADES, RIOTS, two men dead, surely just another weekend in Belfast during the Troubles. No these were the events in Belfast 70 years ago when workers united to fight against the system, for better conditions and the right to life.
The Outdoor Relief riots were the Belfast expression of anger over the conditions facing working people across the world in the early 1930's. On the eve of the riots, the Belfast News Letter
said that 'those on Outdoor Relief are on the verge of starvation.'
Protests were inevitable as the poor and the unemployed tried to survive on the miserable allowances paid by the Board of Guardians. Under their system those who could were forced to work on the roads for basic sums; those who couldn't were forced to live in the workhouse.
On 30 September the Unemployed Workers Movement called a mass demonstration to discuss what to do, 10,000 turned up! The meeting called a strike of the Outdoor Relief workers for October and on the 3rd 600 men stopped work. That night 60,000 marched from across Belfast to the main meeting place, the Custom House Steps.
7,000 people marched on the 4th to the Belfast Work House, on the site of the City Hospital today, demanding that as they were unemployed the Guardians had to let them in and keep them.
On 5 October more parades were held, the RUC banned them. This led to four days of rioting. These parades and riots were not Catholic events, they were not Loyalist events; they were mass mobilisations by the working class. As the riots continued there is one famous report of a woman speaking to crowds on the Shankill saying that the RUC was fighting with the workers on the Falls who needed help. This resulted in diversionary riots on the Shankill as the workers struggled in a common cause.
The RUC response was to try to divide the workers. The protests were labelled as communist and republican plots, the police used guns on the Falls and not on the Shankill, but the two workers killed were Catholic and Protestant.
The government feared the examples of workers unity and forced the Board of Guardians to make an offer so that the ODR strike ended by the 15th. They also responded by passing the Special Powers Act, not out of fear of republicanism, but of a united working class opposition.
October 1932 was a great success for the working class of Northern Ireland, let's repeat the example. Anyone who can should try to get Paddy Devlin's book, Yes We Have No Bananas
, it's a history of these events and can be obtained through libraries.
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