The politics of class and sectarianism in Belfast and rest of UK in the early 20th century


During industrialisation, the northeast became an integral part of the British industrial output centred on the industrial triangle of Belfast, Merseyside and Glasgow. ‘Free trade’(heavily subsidised by the state of course) underpinned the empire and access to overseas markets were essential to the economy of Belfast and its periphery.Subsequently, Belfast to a large extent shared similar features to cities in Britain in terms of social organisation and economic development based on industries such as shipbuilding, manufacturing and linen mills. As John Lynch remarked, “British trade unionists and labour politicians, like Irish nationalists seriously underestimated the ‘Britishness’ of Belfast’s working class culture, assuming that Dublin was typical of Ireland as a whole.”

The intensity and level of sectarian violence in working-class communities gave Belfast a unique reputation compared to the cities of Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow and Manchester.

Irish Catholics migrated to Belfast at the turn of the 19th century but retained their own sense of religious identity, family, and cultural ties. The new migrants from the countryside were mostly semi or unskilled workers and often settled in areas with the worst housing and sanitation conditions. Trade unionism in Belfast was concentrated in engineering, shipbuilding, construction and printing. With large scale Catholic immigration the city began to reflect the pre-existing rural sectarian divisions between the mainly Presbyterian and Anglican population, and the new catholic migrants from counties such as Armagh. The perceived fear over threats to jobs and housing provided the initial backdrop to emerging tensions.

There is some contemporary debate amongst historians as to the reasons behind sectarianism in Belfast. A.C Hepburn argues that “in particular nationalism of the late 19th Century was developed entirely in the south and subsequently imported into the north,” while Brian Walker points out “that a political division other than unionism or nationalism could have developed prior to the 1880s” .

Thus sectarian conflict clearly predates partition and the issue of Home Rule which undoubtedly exacerbated already volatile tensions across Britain and Ireland. Examples of such conflict stretch from the Battle of the Diamond in 1794 to the first recorded riot in Belfast in 1813. Recently, Catherine Hurst based on a localised study of the mainly Catholic Pond and Protestant Sandy Row which remained at the coalface of eruptions in sectarian violence for over a century challenged the argument that “the politics of Belfast Catholics became nationalist in the 1880s,” and argues that the “similar nature of the two districts in terms of housing and casual employment suggests that the origins of sectarianism cannot be found in any economic advantages enjoyed by Protestants or in suspicion caused by the practice of different customs.”

Similarly to Catholics, the majority of the Protestant working-class in Belfast occupied semi or unskilled jobs. However, initial discriminatory practices in allocating jobs favoured Presbyterians in the early development of Belfast and into the 20th century. As well as ongoing discrimination, the development of the apprenticeship system and trade unionism based on the closed shop model compounded sectarian job allocation. The growing sectarian influence and role of the Grand lodge of Ireland in workplaces is noted by Henry Patterson, “Where Orange Lodges operated in these trades, and they accentuated an existing mechanism of exclusion whose origin was in the nature of a certain type of trade union.”

Orange Lodges in Belfast jumped from 144 in 1889 to 229 by 1911, and according to John Lynch “more than any other institution where seen as representing sectarian division.” As such minorities, such as Catholics, socialists and ‘disloyal prods’ were frequently expelled from workplaces such as Harland and Wolf shipyard especially in time of political and social unrest such as 1912 and in the 1920s. Such actions were only based on the participation of a minority of protestant workers often with the encouragement of their unionist bosses who dominated most of the key industries in Belfast. This was strengthened by the passive acceptance of religious division within the wider working-class.

Jim Salmon points to job competition and the real sense of fear and sectarianism in the shipyard, “They were afraid, that was the attitude of some of the Catholics, they were afraid that some of the Protestants would disturb them or go for them.”

In contrast to any other city in Britain or Ireland, the Orange Order in Liverpool impacted on relations between Catholic and Protestants, adding to the already existing fractured work force along ethnic and religious lines with Irish Catholics at the bottom of the social scale. In 1912 on the eve of the Home Rule bill over a 100,000 people turned out to listen to Edward Carson.

Although the working class in Belfast was often segregated into workplaces and every other section of industry, this segregation was not absolute, as the needs of struggle and common class grievances could caused workers to unite in solidarity across several industries, breaking down the effect of segregation found in individual workplaces. The nature of industry in Belfast meant that early on it developed a large industrial working class, which was driven from the quite early times to organise and take action on defence of its interests. There were significant strike engineering strikes in 1895-6, 1897-8, 1919 along with linen strikes in 1897 and 1906 and the famous 1907 Dockers strike. But it was the 1932 Out door relief strike in response to the conditions suffered by unemployment that seemed to hold out the ‘promise’ of workers unity.

The strike which temporarily brought the Falls and Shankill together was followed by concerted efforts to ensure that unionist employers employed good ‘protestant ‘lads and lasses’ over Catholics. These outbursts of class unity and solidarity during the first half of the 20th century highlighted that sectarian hostilities did not completely characterise relations between Catholics and Protestants. Bill Rolston argues that “sectarian relations were so ‘normal’ in Belfast that they broke through the surface, especially when that surface was fragile and temporary as the unity of 1932.” Tommy Patton, then unemployed observed, “The people were shoulder to shoulder for one thing.” However, serious sectarian rioting in Belfast broke out three years later and the Ulster Protestant League was set by unionist politicians William Grace and John F, Gordon to ensure such unity remained limited. On the other side, nationalist bodies such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians also worked to undermine notions of working- class solidarity and struggle.

Irish emigration to the Britain increased substantially after the famine. By 1930 Irish immigrants comprised nearly 10% of England and Scotland’s population and mainly settled in areas such as Midlands and Merseyside which were the engine of industrialisation in Britain. Irish Protestants generally did not experience the same level of hostility and discrimination because they did not settle in the same significant numbers. This slightly differed in Scotland, as fears over Irish immigration fuelled suspicion and fear over jobs and housing, as well as anxiety over their loyalty to the crown served to underpin much of the unrest. According to Gallagher, “Orangeism proved suitable for export because it blended well with certain ideals and prejudices that were widely shared…in Britain”. There is a tendency to over-exaggerate the influence of the Orange Order in shaping relations in communities, as other factors often came to the fore.

Liverpool, shared similar characteristics to Belfast in the relationship between Catholics and Protestants compared to other cities in Britain. Until World War Two the politics of sectarianism and nationalism dominated the local council, and the Irish comprised roughly 1/3 of the population by the early 20th century. Voting patterns reflected this trend and between 1880 and 1912 Irish immigrants who mainly settled in the Scotland Road district voted for an Irish nationalist, the only one outside Ireland, and the ruling Tory party dominated the council in alliances with Orange Lodges in the city. Compared to cities such as Bristol, Manchester and especially Glasgow where Orangemen and Irish nationalists did not occupy the centre stage, Liverpool had no tradition of liberal politics.

Glasgow did not experience the same levels of religious segregation as Belfast and Liverpool as workers shared mixed loyalties. At least Glasgow had a strong liberal tradition which acted a safety valve in restraining sectarianism. At times a confident and militant working-class emerged such as Clydeside strikes in the 1920s, as Tom Gallagher highlights, “the left had a forum where a feeling of common humanity posed a strong challenge to sectarian identities.” Glasgow was able to develop a firm revolutionary tradition within Marxist and anarchist currents.

Manchester for example generally had mixed areas and no districts were completely inhabited by members of one denomination. Even in Irish strongholds in Glasgow such as Bridge gate and the Gorbals communities were quite mixed.

In Glasgow, the trade union movement was not at the mercy of sectarian divisions compared to Belfast; the police force did not predominately come from one side of the community as was the case in Ireland especially after partition. Although the Irish Question served to inflame tensions in the Glasgow left and between Catholics and Protestants, as Gallagher points out this was not a losing war; “Orangeism was dangerous but never absolutely a dominant force in the skilled working class.” Michael Rosie also challenges the idea that sectarianism in Scotland in particular was corrosive and claims that, “contrary to much of the orthodox historiography, recent research concludes that ‘the Catholic Irish in the west of Scotland…were not isolated and despised as some historians have claimed, and that catholic workers were integral part of Scotland’s labour movement.”

In Liverpool, the lack of skilled jobs and ‘casual’ nature of work especially in the Dockland areas was an ideal breeding ground for sectarianism and this workplace hierarchy was reflected in housing conditions.

Steve Fielding based on his study of Irish catholic immigration in Manchester argues that religious division was not so pervasive compared to the other cities, due to the lack of a vocal orange and green tradition and that Irish Catholics lived in ‘ghettos’ due to common social and economic deprivation. Steve rejects the popular view of Irish immigrants being associated with overcrowding and having large families based on a mass-observation survey conducted in the 1940s which suggested “that three children in the average Catholic family was the same size as in their Anglican counterpart.” As the century progressed the Church did not have the same influence on its parishes mainly due to ‘slum clearance’ in inner-city areas. Steve concludes by highlighting that, “there was never enough Ulster Protestants to influence relations throughout the city and they barely formed a distinct and coherent community. Instead of attracting one another, the Orange and Green in Manchester lived in the same streets, and even drank in the same pubs.” Steve conclusively paints a picture of Manchester that undermines the general pattern of relations throughout this period.

In comparison Bristol, was staunchly religious during this period but religious animosity was mainly between non-conformists and the Anglican Church. At times unrest and violence did flare up against the Irish Catholic population, for example, during the two local elections in 1910 around the issue of Home rule, but violence in comparison to Liverpool and Belfast was not on the same scale as migrants were perceived as less of a threat but a ‘threat’ nevertheless.

In conclusion, significant Irish immigration to England and Scotland continued well into the latter half of the 20th Century, and had massive impact on the social, political and economic life in the inner-city areas. They did retain their own sense of culture, religion and custom often to the detriment of relations with the ‘native’ mainly protestant population; however this has been slowly surpassed by the process of integration.

It is clear that relations between Catholics and Protestants in Belfast especially from World War Two onwards despite fears, did not experience the same degree of sectarian hostilities and divisions in comparison with Liverpool for example. Tom Gallagher concluded by reflecting on the west of Scotland, “Despite the legacy of immigration from Ireland, it became apparent that the west of Scotland was not an extension of divided Ulster, but part of a ‘nation’ with its own history, traditions and institutions which had evolved a more low-key way of solving its problems.”

What are we to learn from this early part of the 20th Century? On the one hand we can be disheartened by the level of sectarian division and dislocation. Yet, the brief periods of class struggle provide a glimpse of what is possible when we utilise the weapon of direct action and solidarity against the robber barons of the bosses and State. It is up to us to learn from the past and champion labour struggles if we are to seriously challenge the narratives of nationalism and unionism.