John Gray continues the discussion on the Belfast General Strike of 1919. John’s original piece can be found here, and a reply by Conor Kostick here.
Conor Kostick’s ‘reply’ to my own article on the 1919 General Strike is certainly useful in that it more fairly portrays the real rank and file militancy that was involved, and also reveals the possibilities, even if not taken, of widening the strike still further and to include railway workers.
I agree with Conor’s description of the episode as ‘Belfast’s greatest working class struggle’ indeed that is why I described it as a ‘General Strike’, rather than merely as the ‘Engineering Strike.’ I disagree with regard to its revolutionary potential even if the Manchester Guardian and some Unionist leaders got carried away with talk of ‘Soviets’.
Perhaps one can say that, thanks to the militancy of the rank and file, some of the characteristics of a potentially revolutionary situation did rapidly develop. Without doubt a small minority of those involved had advanced Socialist ideas and readily embraced the prospect.
There is, however, no escaping from the fact that the strike committee was if anything alarmed by what they had created—hence their early agreement to have three hundred strikers enrolled as Special Constables to help maintain order. Yes, the committee included both Catholics and Protestants and Independent Labour Party activists, but it also included Unionists. They limited their demand to that for the 44 hour week, and although there was talk of how they functioned as ‘a Labour Parliament’, this fell far short of any Soviet ambition. No red flags waved in Customs House Square, unlike in St George’s Square in Glasgow! In the longer term they were hoping for no more than the achievement of far more extensive Labour representation in the city, and the breaking of the Unionist monopoly on power.
There was one other reason why they failed to achieve more than the 47 hour week that was on offer elsewhere. That was their belief that Belfast, and notably its shipbuilding industry, was in an exceptional position of strength and hence that they had no need of co-ordination with other centres whether in Glasgow, Britain as a whole, or the rest of Ireland. It was a dangerous illusion, and one that subsequently shattered as the first of the post-war slumps took hold.
I wholly agree with Conor’s analysis of the subsequent Unionist counter-revolution and the purging of Labour in the course of the establishment of the Northern Ireland state. Of course Sinn Féin in its pursuit of a mythic Ireland was uninterested in the strike, though in supporting the Belfast Boycott it was actually backing the demand of expelled workers, many of them Protestant trade unionists, to get their jobs back.
So how should we read all this. Yes, it fits into a two hundred year old ‘radical, non-sectarian, protestant tradition in the north’, and one which includes the 1907 Dock Strike and the 1932 Outdoor Relief riots. But it doesn’t serve to exaggerate the significance of episodes such as these, or to ignore their limitations.