Letter from Dublin: Belfast’s elite have long stoked sectarian division to blunt labor solidarity. Is 2024 the turning point?

Labor rally at Belfast City Hall Jan. 18, 2024.

On Jan. 18, more than 170,000 public sector workers in Northern Ireland went on a 24-hour strike.  The 17 trade unions representing nurses, teachers, ambulance staff, bus drivers, and road maintenance crews did so with the support of most of the people in Northern Ireland.  According to the office of national statistics, there are 861,000 workers in Northern Ireland, which means the strikers constituted 20 percent of all workers in the six counties. (If the same percentage of workers were on strike in Massachusetts, more than 720,000 workers would be on the pickets.)  Rolling industrial actions were planned for February and March.

The immediate issue inspiring the strike was restoring the devolved government of Northern Ireland, shuttered by a DUP boycott for two years. The cost of living and inflation have risen sharply in recent years, and in response, the UK government in Westminster has allocated funds for public sector pay raises for Northern Ireland as they have for England, Scotland, and Wales. But without an assembly in the North to release and administer the funds, the raises for nurses, teachers, and other workers were stuck.

The DUP has been pressured to end their boycott for two years by, among others, the president of the United States, various British and Irish prime ministers, and the president of the European Commission. To no avail.  The legendary Unionist intransigence has been on full display.  Then came the strike.

The unions received cross-community support for this and the subsequent strikes that were planned. Virtually everyone in Northern Ireland either works in the public sector or has a relative who does. Union members also vote. Less than two weeks after the strike, on Jan. 30, the DUP suddenly announced that they would return to government. Their self-serving claim is that major concessions to the Windsor Framework have made the return possible, but the timing relative to the strike is more than a coincidence.

This turn of events evokes a largely forgotten moment of Belfast history: the 1907 Dock Workers strike. Then as now, strikes in Northern Ireland were not just a reaction to a crisis but evidence of broad social movements often shrouded by the twin tribalisms of unionism and nationalism.  Then, as now, the strikes were an assertion of solidarity irrespective of political or religious identity and an offering of an alternative social and economic path. Has the interdenominational approval for labor changed the political dynamic in Northern Ireland?  Can labor serve as a force for unity in the fractious politics of The North? History does not encourage this optimism.


“In other places one might hope to arrest the tendency for history which first occurs as tragedy to repeat itself as farce; here the motive is stronger because, at least for the working class of Belfast, history has tended rather to pile tragedy on top of tragedy.”


Historian John Gray on the 1907 dock workers strike in his book, “City in Revolt.”


The tactic of stoking sectarian division to defeat labor solidarity in Belfast has a long history. The city emerged as an industrial powerhouse in the 19th century, growing from 19,000 inhabitants to 360,000 in just one hundred years. In 1907, Belfast was the fastest growing city in the United Kingdom. The largest shipyard, rope manufacturing plant, linen mill and cigarette factory in the world were all located there. Sirocco, a company that had invented a tea drying process (and later air conditioning), had emerged as one of the world’s largest engineering firms.

All of these industries had ecosystems of manufacturing plants and craftsmen.  The markets for Belfast’s products were global and the ports were teeming with activity.

Belfast’s wealth was closely associated with the Imperial project. In 1896, after the conquest of Burma, the Viceroy of India came to Belfast to announce a large order of ships to support growing trade with India. The Boer War saw a boom in the orders for troop transport vessels. The expanding British Empire meant money flowing to Belfast.  One manufacturer of lemonade marketed its product as a “Gift from Mother Empire.” Today, the union flags still flying around poor loyalist communities with curbstones painted red, white, and blue are sad relics of how the British Empire delivered Belfast’s golden age to a few at the top, including at least three millionaires.


BostonIrish readers who have visited Belfast will find it difficult to imagine an opulent Belfast, but the industrial era in Belfast produced wealth at the Gilded Age–Newport mansions- JP Morgan level, far beyond anything ever seen elsewhere or before in Ireland, except for the Guinness family.  Enormous villas, yachts, and public buildings like the ostentatious City Hall were markers of Belfast’s arrival.


“Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.”

Honoré de Balzac


What was Belfast’s secret sauce for economic success?  In the minds of the Belfast robber barons, it was their superior work ethic, inventiveness, and sobriety, qualities that they believed set them apart from the native Catholic Irish. One might think increased automation was key to profitability, but industries like ship building and linen works are difficult to automate. The real reasons were 1) the global market created by the empire, and 2) an unlimited supply of destitute unskilled laborers in Ireland.

Skilled craftsmen in the factories and shipyards were unionized and paid well, sometimes better than their counterparts in Britain.  Skilled jobs and apprenticeships were held almost exclusively by Protestants. Occasionally, a small number of “reliable Catholics” would rise to these positions and buy homes in more fashionable areas, but during recessions, Catholics were the first to be fired from their jobs and burned out of their homes in spasms of sectarian violence. To oversimplify the social strata of Belfast at the time, the ruling class were generally Anglicans, skilled laborers were Presbyterians, and the unskilled laborers were Evangelical Christians or Catholics.

Catholics were disproportionately over-represented among the unskilled workers, but Protestants constituted the majority. Catholics were only 25 percent of the population of The North at the time. Unskilled laborers of both communities, (dock workers, carters, coal heavers, cigarette factory and linen mill workers) were paid less than starvation wages.  Some 43 percent of children over 10 years old were workers. Life was hard and life was cheap, defined by misery, chronic poverty, and early death. Poor Protestants had a better chance of avoiding absolute destitution during economic downturns because family members who were in better positions could help in lean times, but for the unskilled ‘spellsman’ (gig worker) life was precarious.


“Big Jim” Larkin arrives

in Belfast in January 1907

James “Big Jim” Larkin was born in Liverpool to Irish parents in 1876. He worked as a child on the docks and once stowed away on a ship to Uruguay.  Back in Liverpool, he worked as a sailor and dock worker, rising to foreman in his teens.  He also became deeply involved in the socialist movement, initially rejecting trade unions as instruments of capitalism. In 1905 he became an organizer when his Liverpool employer brought in blacklegs (scabs) to break a strike for higher pay. Despite the strike’s defeat, Larkin became a full-time organizer.

He arrived in Belfast without fanfare as part of a small delegation of English trade unionists.  His mission was to organize the unskilled dock workers. Larkin’s rhetoric was compelling: “The great are only great because we are on our knees. Let us rise,” he said.

The surge in union membership after his arrival was a measure both of Larkin’s effective organizing and of widespread deprivation.  By April, small strikes for better wages by dockers began across the city’s quays.  Sympathetic strikes by carters and coalheavers spread; the cigarette factory and linen mill workers followed.  For the first and only time in history, the Royal Irish Constabulary (the police force) mutinied, refusing to escort imported blacklegs.  Railway workers put tools down. The public were in general support of the workers. In a city of 360,000, over 200,000 participated in massive public demonstrations in support of the strikers. The 12th of July, usually a peak of sectarian violence, had Orangemen in processions proudly displaying their strike badges as well as their orange sashes.  At one Orange rally in a moment of solidarity, the clergyman, Rev. J. Calvin said of the strikers:

“It was not the Catholics they were engaged in fighting; they were a democracy fighting for mere existence against an aristocratic and selfish monied class.”

The backlash was swift. The Tory press ran headlines like “Are the Orangemen of Belfast going to allow themselves to be led by a Fenian?”  Not to be outdone, the Catholic cardinal instructed his parish priests to condemn Larkin as a “Godless atheist and socialist.” The industrialists and the lord mayor demanded military action from Dublin. Ten thousand troops were deployed to the city. The police force had only numbered 2,000 prior to the mutiny.  Soldiers attacked workers with bayonets and bullets and protected blacklegs were imported to what became an occupied city.

The Tory press continued their daily lies, spreading the rumor that Larkin was paying more strike benefits to Catholics than to Protestants. Catholic neighborhoods were leafletted with messages that socialists would behead their priests and burn their churches and convents. 90 percent of the police were either transferred out of Belfast or terminated. As the strike wore on, the workers and their families began to starve and the solidarity of the movement to wane.  Small pay concessions were made to individual unions but without recognizing the unions. By the end of the summer, the strike was defeated by the monied interests of Belfast aligned with the Tories in Britain and the British army.

Despite this epic failure, Larkin brought his message and mission to Dublin and began organizing unskilled laborers there.  He led the lockout of 1913-14 and formed a partnership with James Connolly, who became a key leader in the Easter Rising of 1916. Larkin himself was smuggled out of Ireland after the lockout and by 1916, he was in a US jail after being convicted of ‘criminal anarchism.’  New York Gov. Al Smith later pardoned and deported him to Ireland in 1923. Ironically, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid celebrated his funeral Mass in 1947.


Of 1907’s relevance in 2024

During that summer of 1907 an alternative to the nationalism or unionism binary was offered: shared prosperity.  It was repressed brutally by the ruling classes, the army, and undermined by sectarian bigots and the Catholic hierarchy.  The partition of The North after Irish independence further shattered the Irish labor movement by amputating the most industrially developed region from the rest of the island.

The sectarianism that had appeared to be in momentary retreat in 1907 returned like a virulent cancer. ‘Playing the Orange card’ worked for Randolph Churchill in 1886 to defeat Home Rule, again in 1907 to defeat the Dock Workers Strike, and many times since, including during the 2016 Brexit vote. The orange card is being played again now but while the DUP are still playing the old game in which most everyone loses, organized labor may have changed the game.

The resurgence of unions in Northern Ireland is not happening in a vacuum. Joe Biden became the first US President to stand on a picket line by joining a successful UAW strike. The writers and actors in Hollywood, teachers in LA and Newton MA, nurses in Boston, and UC grad students are all flexing their collective bargaining muscles. Union membership among the young is growing. Labor, long in retreat, is reasserting itself.

Can the modern labor movement move Northern Ireland beyond its self-defeating sectarianism to the vanguard of creating an Ireland that is both prosperous and fair? Irish history is not always encouraging but hope springs eternal.

February 1 marks both the pagan festival Imbolc and St. Brigid’s Day, symbolizing the new beginnings of Irish Spring. Maybe this island is ready for a springtime of solidarity. Happy Spring!