Socialist View, No. 14, Spring 2005
Rent and Rates Strike
1971 saw the start of the largest major civil disobedience campaign in Northern Ireland's history, the Civil Disobedience Campaign. It saw the withdrawal of nationalist politicians from councils, Stormont, etc. and a mass campaign to withhold funds, including the rent and rates strike, from the government in an attempt to bring about the internment's end.
Stormont thought Operation Demetius was going to end the Troubles. They were badly wrong. Stormont felt that internment in the 1950s had been successful so why not try it to calm the rising tide of violence. 1968 had seen civil rights marches and limited violence. August 1969 saw the invasion of Catholic areas. 1970-71 saw the emergence of the IRA with the death of the first British soldier and 30 other deaths in 1971 up to internment day.
Of the 342 lifted 105 were released within 2 days. At a West Belfast press conference held on the 13th Joe Cahill announced that about 30 IRA members had been detained and of those only 3 were leaders. Internment was an intelligence failure and it failed to halt the violence. In the 2 days after the raids 17 died with 149 dying violently in 1971.
What really happened in the Rent and Rates strike?
An old saying goes - "Success has many fathers", thereby explaining why so many say they called the rent and rates strike. It's true that the SDLP and Nationalist MP's called one from a press conference on August 15th, but it had already started after a call by Belfast NICRA on the 10th! The reality is the protest wasn't called by any one organisation, it was a spontaneous, mass, peaceful protest to 'secure the release of the internees and to obtain a Bill of Rights which would guarantee civilised methods of government."
In Belfast's Public Record Office there is a government file, COM/58/13 titled Civil Disobedience - Counter Measures, which correctly says:
"There can be no doubt of the great mass of sincere and immediate support for the rank and file for this opposition to internment. Indeed the relative success of the campaign from the beginning is probably due less to any organisation behind it, which can only have been minimal, than to the conviction of individual participants that their cause was just."
Individual families decided that they had to take a stand on this unjust law so once the call was made thousands responded. Within weeks the numbers withholding rent rose to 21,248 and it grew from there. Although the campaign was aimed against public finances in an attempt to influence the government, at least 200 residents in one housing association also struck.
Limited or mass campaign?
A major limitation affecting the RRS was that it was isolated to one section of the community, the core being those Catholics in public sector housing.. This limitation meant that the government spun the facts by saying that it was only a small-scale protest.
In a press statement on October 17th 1971 the government claimed that 26,000 were not paying out of a housing stock of 140,000, or 18.6%. The spin unravels when the files are looked at. On October 27th 1971 the Belfast County Borough Council had 16,000 dwellings, with 3,475 non-payers, giving a publicly quoted strike rate of 29.7%, a reasonable enough level. If you look at the areas with strikers, there overall percentage rises to 80%.
John McGuffin in his book, Internment, reports on the Tyrone Central Civil Resistance Committee conference of October 17th. There were reports of areas like Newry with 95% solidarity, the Bogside and Brandywell with 90%, etc. This has been dismissed as propaganda but the governments recently released files show that on October 1st there was a 82.5% non payment rate in the Belfast's Glen Road area, 87.5% in Derry, 43.3% in Cookstown and 90.75% in Andersonstown. There were even 4 isolated but determined houses in Ballycastle who stayed involved from the start until well into 1973.
The government responded to this popular protest and the financial threats with the Payment for Debt (Emergency Provisions) Act Northern Ireland (1971) on 14th October. This was described by the leader of the Child Poverty Action Group as 'the worst piece of social legislation passed in the UK in this century.'
The Act allowed the government to deduct the rent, plus rent arrears, from anyone who was in receipt of government funding, i.e. anyone who got social security or who worked for the government in any capacity. It was quickly adapted to allow any landlord, building society, etc. to use it to force payments of anyone in arrears. The government also established a special office, the Benefits Allocation Branch, with a staff of 80 responsible for taking the money.
After the initial ground swell with thousands getting involved NICRA called on November 5th to escalate the protest. They called for more people to join in and for other payments to the government to be stopped, include TV and radio licences, ground rent, water bills, etc.
How effective was the rent and rates strike?
One thing to remember today is that the actual rent in the early 1970s was low relative to today, ranging from £1.05 per week to £3 in Sept. 1971. By March 1972 there were 22,400 'defaulters' withholding £1,012,000 in rent and rates, rising to debts in the 'region of £2m' by June 1973.
In June 1972 civil servants noted that Belfast Water Commissioners 'are likely to face a deficit of perhaps 20%' instead of the normal 2% That the Belfast Corporation Election office was owed £400,000 and the NI Electricity Board owed £125,000 by customers because of the campaign.
Part of the NICRA advert in the Irish News, 5th November 1971. Note that Water Bills should not be paid, that does sound familiar.
What was the government's response?
Besides the repressive legislation and the creation of a new 80 strong office to take money off the lowest income families in society, the government was worried about the scale of the popular protest. There are a number of things that highlight the government's fears. On December 9th 1971 Sean Morrissey, the Chairman of the Turf Lodge Residents Association, and Executive Committee member of the Communist Party, was arrested. Was it a coincidence that the government had heard the day before that the estate had 88.7% of non-payers! In a reflection of the position of Marxism in favour of mass protest actions the Belfast Telegraph reported, 19th January 1972, that:
"This civil disobedience campaign will cripple unionism more surely than any bombings of city warehouses and stores."
It is not fanciful to consider that the scale of the popular protest was one of the factors in the government being determined to smash the civil disobedience and street protests. And then came Derry.
In 1972 the military situation in Northern Ireland exploded after Bloody Sunday with Stormont being suspended and Direct Rule. Given this combination of developments it is no surprises that there was a slow fall off in the numbers protesting in the rent and rates strike. Despite this slow fall off, 12 of 18 participating Belfast districts had over 50% or more taking part in June 1972. There were still over public sector tenants 11,740 taking part in Feb. 1974. The recently released government files are a mixed collection of documents but one of them does state that in addition to the protesters in the public sector there were a further 9,000 privately owned properties not paying rates giving over 20,000 still protesting in mid 1974.
The election of the power-sharing executive was seen as a political change causing some to leave the strike. A further factor was the July 1974 announcement by Secretary of State Merlyn Rees announcing that Internment would be gradually phased out.
On Dec. 28th 1973 the SDLP called for the strike to end. When made a Minister in the Executive Austin Currie, someone who had occupied a house in the sixties against injustices, implemented plans to not only increase the amount of arrears which could be seized every week he also added a charge against the protesters. This provoked huge anger against the SDLP but also squeezed the protesters.
The Rents and Rates strike involved tens of thousands in mass protest action against government injustice. It developed on the spur of the moment with no organisation behind it, planning for it, encouraging people to take part. A combination of several factors lead to its easing away.
These factors include the simple fact that it was a spontaneous action, that no one had built the mood and the support necessary for it in the areas before hand and then maintain to maintain that level of action. The repressive laws were a factor. As socialists repeatedly pointed out repressive laws were used against the working class. These laws brought in to smash the rent strike were used against anyone who got into financial difficulties, including Protestant residents of Belfast's Glencairn estate in March 1972. The repressive laws did have an impact on the situation then but the legal position today is that instead of a blanket piece of repression should the government, or NIE, etc, want to take our money they have to take us all individually to court thereby slowing down their repayments and clogging up the legal system.
It must also be considered that the Provos campaign also pushed the mass, non-violent campaign to the side. The idea that an individual could really take part in the struggle was down played while the activists of the IRA took the campaign to the streets. 149 died in 1971, 479 in 1972. Why would individuals struggle against the state when the 'people's army' would do the job?
In conclusion, the rent and rates strike was a massive peaceful protest against injustice. It was a spontaneous movement. If it had been prepared, if it had been cross community, it could have succeeded. These are lessons the campaign against the water charges has drawn.
Numbers of non-payers, on selected dates, by Housing Authority area
District Stock 31/3/72 6th Sept. 71 4th Oct 71 31st Dec 71 3rd Feb. 72 10th Mar72 29th Aug 72 17th Jan 73
Total 68,112 21,248 25,834 23,190 22,754 22,486 21,229 19,508
Belfast districts - participation rate - real and official - for May June 1972
Estate No. of dwellings Official % Strikers 31.5.72 Official % Strikers 28.6.72 Real % of strikers in occupied houses in June
New Barnsley/Moyard 708 54.5 50.99 90.02
St Katherines Rd 15 80.0 80.00 85.71
Ballymurphy 682 74.5 69.94 80.85
Whiterock/A'town 543 82.7 75.14 78.31
T Lodge/Springhill 1,285 62.3 58.05 73.86
Hamill St/John St 118 61.9 61.86 62.39
Total 4902 59.2 56.61 67.49