Struggle or Starve: Working-Class Unity in Belfast’s 1932 Outdoor Relief Riots
by Sean Mitchell (Haymarket Books, £14.99)
AS THE government pursues its policy of persecuting the poor, Struggle or Starve could be an epithet for Britain in 2017. In it, Sean Mitchell, socialist and founder of Ireland’s People Before Profit party, reminds us of an important part of Belfast history when Protestants and Catholics united to oppose a draconian Poor Law.
But it’s more than a history book.
Mitchell shows how the conditions of the poor in Belfast in the 1930s had a direct relationship with the creation of the Northern Ireland state in 1920 and its continued existence today.
Northern Ireland was created as a one-party state to enshrine Protestant hegemony but, as the economic depression took hold after 1929, the position of both Catholics and Protestant workers reached a catastrophic condition of poverty and hunger.
Unlike in Britain and over the border in the south of Ireland, in Northern Ireland the 1834 Poor Law was never repealed. Unemployment reached 40 per cent in 1932 and tens of thousands faced starvation.
The Poor Law system failed to address the scale of the crisis, while the Protestant government did not care.
Out of this crisis a small group of communists called the Revolutionary Communist Group seized the moment. Mitchell vividly brings to life this fantastic story of how individuals such as Tommy Geehan led a campaign of mass demonstrations, sit-ins in workhouses and strikes, culminating in two days of rioting in 1932. The motto of the campaign was: “No surrender to poverty, misery and destitution.”
Geehan and his comrades had also to combat inbuilt prejudice between Protestant and Catholic workers. But he was able to show that these workers had more in common with each other than the Protestant upper classes who ran the statelet.
After two days of rioting the government gave in and doubled the rate of poor relief and modified the means test. The lessons of 1932 went on to influence other workers such as railway workers, mainly Protestant, who sought solidarity with their southern Catholic comrades in a strike in 1933.
Importantly, Mitchell demonstrates how the rottenness of the Northern Ireland state dominates workers’ lives and futures on the island of Ireland in 2017 and this well-written and captivating history of 1932 is an important step in showing people that people in Northern Ireland have more to gain from a united class struggle than sectarianism.