BY CHRIS DONNELLYProtestor speaks at commemoration of the strikes Photograph: Tyler McNally
Often between the cracks of Ireland's deep sectarian divisions, appear moments of heroic unity between its most oppressed people. In October 1932, the unemployed and labouring poor of Belfast, linked arms and demanded an end to exploitation of outdoor relief workers.
A strike was organised against the depth of exploitation of the relief workers, in the main by the Belfast based 'Revolutionary Workers Groups'. Where sectarianism had been used in the past to divide workers, the relief strikes forged a unity of purpose for the duration of its eleven or so days. This unity was retained even in the face of the best efforts of the state to break the strike by force, killing two workers in the process and wounding roughly one hundred others.
After its creation, Northern Ireland endeavored to stabilise itself militarily through the introduction of emergency legislation and the utilisation of the RUC specials to deal with political opposition. Economically it was reliant on the shipbuilding and textile industries and during the 20th century the minor privileges of a skilled Protestant labour aristocracy were being undermined by their decline, creating great tensions among the working class in the city.
The Great Depression created a vast reserve of unemployed labour which led to Protestant and C
atholic workers fixing roads on relief schemes for as little as 8 shillings a week. The exploitation created the conditions for the organisation of a strike that united the workers around key demands. Whereas labour agitation in Belfast was traditionally undermined through playing the orange card and ostracising so called 'rotten prods', the relief strikes alongside the 1907 dockers strike broke with this (albeit a strike which occurred before the home rule crisis, and its resulting carnival of reaction).
The forms of exploitation those workers dealt a blow against have resurfaced in the wake of another capitalist crisis. The right wing response to unemployment has been to reintroduce schemes such as 'workfare' in England alongside modern forms of indentured labour. In Northern Ireland, the Department of Employment and Learning have ignored completely the problem of the lack of well-paid jobs and instead have adopted the rhetoric of making us more competitive within a failing jobs market.
Aiming to highlight the historical significance of these strikes, as well as militating against current youth unemployment and the ineptitude of the political response to it, 'Youth Fight for Jobs' organised the 'March For a Future' on October 6th. The march began at Custom House Square and headed up the Shankill and down the Falls. In their statement they said they intended to, 'commemorate the heroic struggle of 1932 and to send a message to the politicians and bosses that we will fight back too!'
The lesson of history teaches us that the working class can defeat division through action. It is imperative that this lesson is borne in mind in the context of dealing with our current sectarian divisions.