By Henry Patterson
The Belfast Shipyard Expulsions of 1920
In the Irish Times obituary of the veteran Belfast trade unionist and communist, Andy Barr, who had been a leading shop steward in the Harland and Wolf shipyard, the anonymous author noted an apparent contradiction in his career: ‘in tandem with support for civil rights and membership of the Communist Party of Ireland, he was so prominent in shipyard trade unionism, a movement with a sorry history of discrimination against Catholics and indeed against active socialists.’ A question which this paper raises is to what extent is it legitimate to tar the trade union movement in the shipyards and indeed the wider labour force with this sorry history of discrimination. At the core of the view expressed in the obituary is a particular understanding of the workplace expulsions which would depict them as evidence of a homogenous privileged stratum. I will argue that shipyard workforce was much more diverse in both economic and political terms.
The shipyard expulsions on 21 July 1920 were not the first time that groups of protestant workers in Belfast shipyards had menaced, attacked and expelled those they defined as political enemies. Intimidation of Catholic workers at times of sectarian tension had occurred since the first decade of the existence of the Harland and Wolff shipyard in the 1860s. During the severe rioting which broke out in August 1864 and lasted for 18 days and in which 12 deaths occurred, groups of Protestant workers exerted pressure on employers to dismiss Catholic employees. On the Queen’s Island works of Harland and Wolff, the shipwrights struck demanding the dismissal of Catholics who were alleged to be acting as police spies giving information about shipyard workers involved in the rioting. The riots broke out after some Belfast Catholics returned from the ceremony for the laying of the foundation stone of the O’Connell statue in Dublin and a crowd of protestants from Sandy Row attempted to carry a burning effigy of O’Connell into the Catholic, Pound, area. In 1886 at a time of high tension over Gladstone’s Home Rule bill, the major riots which occurred over a period of five months and in which thirty-two people died, were initiated when a group of shipyard workers attacked Catholic labourers working on a new dry dock on Queen’s Island. The Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the riots commented on the leading role of shipyard workers and remarked on the widespread use of steel rivet discs, the pieces of metal cut out by riveters. Like this infamous riot weapon, ‘Belfast Confetti’, shipyard works had been inscribed in working class vernacular as the ‘Islandmen’ seen as the vanguard of working class Unionism.
In the aftermath of expulsions in 1912 the Belfast Police Commissioner drew up a report placing the recent violence in historical context going back to 1886:
In ordinary times they did not do duty in the shipyards and their presence there was regarded as an intrusion and an insult. Even in ordinary times, a policeman in uniform has missiles frequently thrown at him if has to go down about the Queen’s Road. Missiles were thrown at the police marching to and from duty by men working on the ships.
The hostility towards the police stemmed from the 1886 rioting when there was a widespread rumour that emergency drafts of the RIC had been recruited from nationalist sympathisers and sent to break possible Protestant resistance to Home Rule. According to the Commissioner responsible for policing Belfast during the 1907 dock strike, he could safely employ RIC mean anywhere in the docks but their presence near the shipyards ‘only excited the workers and caused acts of disorder to be committed.’
During the parliamentary discussion of the second Home Rule Bill in 1893 there were further disturbances . The management of Harland and Wolff did attempt to stop the intimidation of Catholic workers. The attacks had taken place during the early morning break for breakfast so management announced that work would not commence until 8.30 instead of 6 a.m. Many of the trade unions in the yard protested that they were as opposed to the attacks as the management and that the great bulk of their members agreed with them. Their statements distinguished an irresponsible ‘hooligan’ minority from the majority of respectable tradesmen’. This differentiation also appeared during the much more substantial disturbances which occurred in July 1912 during the passage of the third Home Rule Bill and the Ulster Unionist Council’s mobilisation against it. The attacks were precipitated by a serious incident at Castledawson , County Londonderry, on 29 July , when a Presbyterian Sunday School excursion party consisting largely of women and children was attacked by a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians , returning from a nearby demonstration , precipitating a clash between members of the RIC, Hibernians and Protestants. Some of the children were those of Belfast shipyard workers and groups of loyalist workers looked for revenge and assaults were committed on Catholic workers and also on Protestant liberals and Home Rulers. The attacks began in the north yard of the Workman Clark shipyard where a group estimated about 300 composed of apprentices and heater boys (riveters’ assistants) went from ship to ship and workshop to workshop demanding that all ‘Fenians’ and ‘Home Rulers’ get out. Over the next few days 2000 workers left the yards. There was a measure of agreement in accounts given by the Unionist and Nationalist press. Thus the Northern Whig in its editorial on the initial expulsions drew a distinction within the shipyards’ labour force:
Those who participated in the attacks were the young and more ungovernable section of the huge industrial army employed in the shipyards- rivet and furnace boys, who have often precipitated trouble before at times when party feeling was high. Their conduct has been condemned by every responsible Protestant in the city. It is to be hoped that when the passions aroused by the Hibernian ruffianism has calmed down that the juvenile section of shipyard works – a necessary though occasionally troublesome section – would become more amenable to the control of their elders.
Two days later when there was a recrudescence of the attacks, the paper appealed for action from the employers:
All the respectable Protestant workers on the Queen’s Island are much annoyed at these incidents, and the public are beginning to be indignant that the perpetrators are not identified and made an example of. The youths who are taking advantage of the bad blood caused by the Castledawson affair to indulge their own rowdy propensities richly deserve a sharp lesson and surely it is in the power of the responsible employers of the great firm of Harland and Wolff to see that they have it.
The Ulster Unionist Council passed a resolution deploring the expulsions . Although it located the primary cause of the expulsions in the ‘cowardly attack by a Hibernian procession on the unoffending procession of women and children at Castledawson’, it appealed to the ‘Unionist workmen who have so staunchly supported their leaders in the past to continue to bear themselves as men worthy of the great cause in which their whole future and that of the community is involved.’ By the end of July Harland and Wolff, whose owner Lord Pirrie was a recent convert to Home Rule from the liberal unionism, took action. It threatened to lay off its entire workforce of 17,000 unless the Catholic workers were reinstated. The action had been provoked by a second bout of violence when the shipyards reopened after the 12 July holiday. Under army, RIC and harbour police protection some expelled workers returned but later that day large numbers of loyalist workers attacked the returnees. The management threat , the deployment of troops and the use of senior workers to police the others allowed the gradual return of some of expelled workers during the autumn and winter. The response of the managing director of the Workman Clark yard, George Clark, was very different. On the Catholics who had been forced out of his 9000 workforce he made the disparaging comment that they had been ‘easily frightened’. Clark was a member of the Military Committee of the Ulster Unionist Council and was later chairman of the Arms Committee of the UUC and later used his yard as one of the place for the importation of arms. However, in the Workman Clark yards by the end of September, none of the expelled works had returned. These would have included not only Catholics but liberals and socialists. Three days after the expulsions began the Belfast Commissioner of Police received a deputation of workers demanding police protection. The group included ‘expelled Protestant socialist workmen’.’ Later in the month a meeting of expelled workers heard a report from D R Campbell of the Belfast Trades Council who had been a member of a deputation of expelled workers who had met the Chief Secretary, Augustine Birrell. He reported Birrell’s surprise that three of the deputation were Protestants. In fact Protestants composed around a quarter of those expelled.
The Federation of Engineering and Ship-Building Trades whose constituent unions represented many of the main unions of skilled workers in the yards noted the tendency of many trade unionists to keep their heads down: ‘Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the disturbances was that the protection of ‘marked’ workmen by their shop mates was not more general.’ Given the level of violence and the fact that some of those expelled had been prominent activists a weakening of the capacity to respond was inevitable. However, the local district committee of the Federation noted that almost every affiliated trade had sent deputations to employers repudiating the ‘terrorism which was being manifested.’
Trade unions and the broader labour movement had had no more than moral power and even that depended on management, the state and leadership from the UUC and the Orange Order to be effective. Pirrie’s action along with Dublin Castle’s willingness to deploy troops helped to reestablish order in the yards and other workplaces. The Unionist political leadership’s strategy was described later in the official biography of Carson:
Such angry exchanges of words and blows must have convinced Carson of what he had long foreseen, the necessity of a diversion. If there was not to be an explosion, cruel, bloody and disastrous both to peace and the cause, he must have what Tim Healy called a ‘safety valve for the Orangemen’. If we consider the Ulster Covenant as the historian should consider such things, within its circumstances, we see how well calculated it was to raise the minds of people above the anarchy of civil riot. As for the UVF its rules and discipline were calculated to keep the peace.
The need to discipline popular Protestant sectarianism had been a long standing concern for the leadership of Unionism principally because of the damage that manifestations of indiscriminate loyalist violence damaged the Unionist cause in Great Britain. The strategic importance of controlling Protestant violence was spelt out by Carson to a meeting of Belfast businessmen in July 1913:
Among other things deal with by Sir Edward was the present position of Roman Catholic workers in places where the workers were mixed and he strongly advised every precaution to be taken in order to ensure that such workers would not be interfered with and it was suggested by another present that this was the right thing to adopt and that a great deal of harm was done to the cause in the past by the neglect of this.
Down to the First World War the UUC strategy was to mobilise loyalist trade unionists in propaganda in the rest of the UK to demonstrate that Unionism was not, as its nationalist opponents claimed an affair of landlords, capitalists and Orange hooligans. On 7 April 1914, the main Unionist newspapers carried an appeal from ‘overwhelming body of trade unionists in Ulster’ to trade unionists in the rest of the UK:
We are certain that the granting of Home Rule to Ireland must be fatal to the interests of trades unionism in this country and would be a deadly blow at the solidarity of the movement. Our leading trade organisations are branches of the great British unions. The establishment of Home Rule will be followed by the setting up of rival and independent Irish unions…We have won improved conditions because the workers of the three kingdoms were able to exert joint pressure on the Imperial Parliament. To leave us to the consideration of a Parliament with crippled finances, elected mainly from agricultural constituencies, will deprive us of participation in those further benefits which British workers are certain to secure from the Imperial Parliament in the near future.
The appeal was a response to a national labour demonstration in Dublin organised by the Irish Trade Union Congress to protest against the proposal by the Liberal government for a form of partition in which leading members of the Belfast Trades Council participated. Two days after the Dublin meeting, the trade unionists involved in the appeal organised a mass meeting of trade unionists against Home Rule in the Ulster Hall. The appeal had been signed by twenty trade union officials , the core of them from the shipyards. A third were from the Shipwrights including William Grant, the President, and Thompson Donald, the ex-district secretary and a delegate to the British TUC conference. Other crafts were represented like George Stevens of the Boilermakers:
They the Protestants loved the old flag, the emblem of liberty and justice, they wanted to remain exactly as they were, loyal subjects to the King of the British Empire…if the government tried by force to compel them to submit to the domination of a parliament in Dublin largely composed of agriculturalists, who knew absolutely nothing of their requirements, then that force would be met by a resistance stronger than the most optimistic could imagine.
The militant Unionist trade unionists would be the basis for the creation of an Ulster Unionist Labour Association in July 1918, largely at the instigation of Sir Edward Carson, to counteract alleged socialist and liberal misrepresentation of the interests and opinions of working class Protestants and prevent any seepage of working class support to Labour in the forthcoming general election. To burnish Unionism’s pan-class image three of the Unionist candidate for Belfast were trade union members of the UULA and in the elections for the Northern Ireland parliament it had five members returned including its President, John M Andrews, the director of his family’s substantial flax spinning firm. Although Sir James Craig would later claim it was the ‘most wonderful organisation in Ulster’ and had won the support of the ‘cream’ of the working class, this was a gross exaggeration. It’s claim of 30,000 members was a propagandist fantasy- at most it possessed a few hundred. However, although it never fulfilled Carson’s hope for a mass working class base for the Unionist Party, it did play a key ideological and organisational role in the 1920 expulsions.
Despite my own, more than forty year old analysis of the expulsions and Dr Austen Morgan’s 1991 very detailed account of the events, it was still possible for Conor Kostick to write the following:
The partial defeat of the strike led to demoralisation, and a sudden slump in May 1920 combined with the continuing existence of a large number of unemployed ex-veterans to create the conditions under which a sectarian pogrom could take place. In July leading unionist politicians such as Edward Carson and James Craig, used the Orange marches to make speeches advocating an attack on Labour and Sinn Fein. Loyalists with the complicity of the shipyard owners, organised meetings where several thousand unemployed and ex-servicemen gathered to roam through the factories armed with sledgehammers and other weapons. Catholics and socialists had to flee for their lives. Over 7000 workers lost their jobs, some 2000 of whom were Protestant trade unionists.
It is true that Carson did make a speech at Finaghy on the 12th July in which he warned loyalists: ‘The most insidious method is tacking on the Sinn Fein question and the Irish republican question to the Labour question’ and threatening the Government that if it did not take adequate measures against Sinn Fein, he would reorganise the Ulster Volunteer Force. This speech did feature highly in many anti-unionist labour activists explanation of the ‘pogrom’. But at the time, the Irish News thought the speech ‘a harmless and commonplace harangue…(comprising) platitudes and conditional threats.
It is useful to consider the reasons given to justify the expulsions by their defenders at the time. A week after the expulsions had begun a lunch hour meeting of shipyard workers was held outside the gate of Workman Clark’s North Yard. Its purpose was to respond to the possibility of those referred to as ‘Sinn Fein workers’ to return. A resolution was passed which while deploring ‘wrecking and looting’ declared ‘we will not work with disloyal workers until the railway-men decide to handle Government stores and troops as heretofore and Sinn Feiners cease the foul murder campaign which has destroyed the fair name and fame of our beloved country.’ It added a ‘respectful suggestion’ to employers that in all future applications for employment ‘first consideration be given loyal ex-servicemen and Protestant Unionists’. The ‘loyal’ was added because a considerable number of those expelled had been ex-servicemen. The chief speaker at the meeting was a joiner and member of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners, William Barclay. He enumerated four reasons for the expulsions:
In the first place, many of their men, who were loyal to King and Country, and who joined the forces of the Crown when the war broke out, were now walking about the streets unemployed……while in the yards were employed disloyal members, earning good livelihoods at the expense of the men who joined the Army.
Another cause was the action of some of their trade unionists and trades council in trespassing upon political territory which had caused a cleavage in their ranks —some of the trade union executives had passed what were virtually Sinn Fein resolutions.
Then there were those terrible outrages in different parts of the country…The last cause of the of the trouble was the circumstances surrounding the fate of that gallant Ulsterman, Commissioner Smyth.
If the Castledawson affray was the immediate catalyst for the expulsions of 1912, the IRA’s killing of Colonel GFS Smyth , Divisional Commander of the RIC for Munster, who was shot dead at the County Club in Cork on 17 July. Smyth had a distinguished war record and was a native of Banbridge . His murder caused intense anger in the North, heightened by problems in bringing his body North for burial. The driver and fireman refused to work the engine on the train from Cork. Smyth’s funeral took place on the day the expulsions began.
That day , the first day of full production after the annual holiday for the Orange celebrations notices were posted up in the yards and approach roads calling on all ‘Protestant and Unionist ‘ workers to attend an important meeting during the dinner break. The meeting which took place outside the gates of the Workman Clark south yard was variously estimated at between two and five thousand. The main topic raised was the IRA campaign in the south and west of Ireland where it was claimed all aspects of the British administration had collapsed and Sinn Fein was in control. Recent rioting in Derry in which nineteen people had been killed was seen as evidence of an attempt to introduce the conditions of the south and west to Ulster. Loyalists should rely on their own resources and clear out the disloyal elements in the yards, foundries and factories of Belfast. When the meeting ended a group estimated as between 300 and 1000 composed of apprentices and rivet boys from Workman Clark yard and engine works marched through the yards of Harland and Wolff ordering out all Catholic works and those Protestants identified as socialists .Some were beaten, kicked and pelted with stones and rivets; others to escape swam to the south side of the Musgrave Channel. Rumours spread that some men had drowned as trams carrying shipyard workers were attacked in the Markets and North Streett. By the evening large opposing crowds gathered and in Ballymacarrett there was widespread looting and burning of Catholic-owned shops and spirit groceries. The next day the expulsions spread as groups of apprentices and rivet boys toured large works like the Sirocco engineering factory. By the end of the week about five thousand workers had lost their job and violence had spread into working class districts in east and north Belfast in a spate of looting, burning and evictions.
Peter Hart identified the expulsions as part of a tradition of rioting and territorial struggle going back through 1912, 1886, 1872, 1864 and 1857. However, he noted that what moved the 1920 violence to another level was ‘ the simultaneous struggles between states- British, republican and Northern Irish- that raised the stakes to winner take-all.’
Although Ulster Unionism was in the throes of a transitional process of state construction in the North, the mentality of many Unionists and in particular of the Unionist press was still an all-island one. Unionists were keenly attuned to the development of the IRA campaign in the rest of Ireland. When, in March, the Portadown magistrate, Alan Bell, who was being employed by Dublin Castle to trace where Sinn Fein funds were lodged in Dublin banks, was taken from a tram and shot dead, the Belfast Police Commissioner mentioned widespread rumours that reprisals would be taken in Belfast. Events in Derry where the catholic majority had gained control for the first time in the municipal elections of January were keenly observed. The new nationalist mayor declared ‘Ireland’s right to determine her own destiny will come about whether the Protestants of Ulster like it or not.’ Control of Derry and the county councils and urban councils in Fermanagh and Tyrone gave anti-partitionist campaigners a major boost at a time when the Government of Ireland Act was being passed at Westminster. According to a recent history of Derry in the period , ‘This development along with increasing IRA action….created a powder keg situation that made the tensions of 1913-14 look tame be comparison.’ After IRA arson attacks on police barracks, tax offices and other government buildings over the Easter weekend, there was a widespread Unionist fear of a general uprising across the country. Sectarian rioting and an increasing number of IRA attacks on soldiers and police in the city in April and May provoked an organised Unionist resistance. In May the IRA killed the head of special branch in the city, the first RIC man to be killed in the six counties. Between 19 and 26 June a combination of sectarian rioting and a three cornered shooting match between the IRA, a revived UVF and the Army left twenty dead in what Adrian Grant has called Derry’s ‘civil war’. It was only ended by a curfew and martial law. Ominously after the IRA had shot dead Howard McKay, son of the governor of the Apprentice Boys, allegedly after he refused to divulge the location of a UVF arms dump, Belfast shipyard workers telegraphed Carson asking him to mobilise the UVF. Wartime stories of Catholics taking jobs of Protestant enlistees in the Derry shipyard also anticipated events in Belfast. Shipyard workers in Belfast set up a fund for Derry loyalists who had suffered during the May and June violence.
Although the Government of Ireland bill had been introduced in February with its provisions for parliaments in Belfast and Dublin, the task of creating a parliament, civil service and policing and judicial structures remained to be achieved. Northern Unionists noted the despair of their southern counterparts – on 1 May the Irish Times expressed the deep pessimism of southern unionism:
The Irish executive must begin with the full recognition of the dismal truth, that it has hitherto been fighting a losing battle. The forces of the Crown are being driven back on their headquarters in Dublin by a steadily advancing enemy. The King’s government has virtually ceased to exist south of the Boyne and west of the Shannon.
Given the disturbed conditions throughout the North, it was unsurprising, if irresponsible, for Carson to proclaim to the government ‘ that if having offered you our help, you are yourselves unable to protect us from the machinations of Sinn Fein…..we tell you that we will take the matter into our own hands. We will reorganise…throughout the Province the Ulster Volunteers. And those are not mere words. I hate words without action.’
Carson and Craig were pressing the government to enrol what would launched as the Ulster Special Constabulary in September 1920 but in the interim groups of loyalist workers would provide their own brutal example of what ‘taking the matter into our own hands’ could mean. In contrast to previous expulsions the loyalist workers involved pushed on to institutionalise their power in the yards. In response to an attempt by Sinn Fein and Labour councillors to have a meeting of the Corporation called to discuss ways of reinstate expelled workers so-called Vigilance committees were established . These printed cards with a declaration of loyalty to George V and a repudiation of Sinn Fein. Any expelled worker who signed such a declaration would be allowed back to work. These vetting committees were set up in many departments of the yards and were often inaugurated with ceremonies involving the unfurling of Union flags. Sir Ernest Clark who was sent from Dublin Castle to take charge of the establishment of a northern administration entered into discussions with the trade unions, the Joint Vigilance Committee and the management of Harland and Wolff to get the workers reinstated. Because of the expulsions many of the departments were under-manned when an extension of the works had been planned. Undermanning was particularly bad in the joiner’s section and work on some ships had come to a standstill or was seriously delayed because of a shortage of 400 joiners. The result was an agreement that workers would be reinstated without the necessity of signing a declaration on the understanding that they were not, on their honour, associated with Sinn Fein. Moreover there was a recognition by management of a continued role for the Vigilance Committees in guaranteeing ‘protection’ for the workers who returned. Pirrie who had threatened to shut the yard in 1912 to get workers reinstated told a deputation from the Scottish TUC in August 1920 that although he opposed a man’s religion or political views being used to exclude him from work, he did not propose to do anything at the moment as ‘the Ulster temperament is always uncertain at this time of year.’ The agreement had taken place during a lull in the intercommunal violence that had been wracking east and north Belfast. Two days later, the murder of two policemen by the IRA caused further rioting and by the end of the year the bulk of the expelled workers were still out of work.
A small cadre of UULA workers, some of them active trade unionists, played a key role in justifying the expulsion and running the Vigilance Committees. One of them, a plater’s helper, James Crumlin, at a meeting in Dee Street Protestant Hall, proposed that all loyalist workers down tools at once and refuse to work with any returning ‘disloyal’ workers. He boast that the expulsions had created work for 500 loyalists, mostly ex-servicemen, in Harland and Wolff’s East Yard. In the weeks before the expulsions the Newsletter had published letters warning of the ‘peaceful penetration’ of the workplaces of Ulster by Catholics from the South taking the jobs of those who had volunteered for war service. As Dennis Kennedy has noted the letters ‘were probably as much a reflection of how working-class Unionists were thinking, as they were an incitement to action’. Alex Boyd, a member of the ILP and a Belfast councillor indicted local employers for their neglect of unemployed loyalists and ex-servicemen:
At the beginning of the war orders poured into the shipyards and foundries and the labour which was required came largely from the South and West- men who did not do their duty in the trenches. They came to fill the places of those brave lads who went to the front and the Belfast employers have not acted fairly to the ex-soldiers who were formerly in their employment. These men had been told that there were no vacancies in the shipyard. He contended that on their discharge from the army they should have been reinstated, no matter who was dismissed.
Boyd, a supporter of the leading Belfast Labour figure, William Walker, in the 1900s, had also been a member of the Independent Orange Order the breakaway group established in 1903 as a populist alternative to mainstream Unionism and Orangeism. Rooted in the Protestant working class it had links to the militantly Protestant , Belfast Protestant Association, whose founder Arthur Trew, whose arrest and imprisonment in 1901 for organising an attack on a Corpus Christie procession , led to attacks on Catholic navvies working near the Queens Island and also some attacks on workers in the shipyards. The notices calling the meeting of shipyard workers on 21 July had been put up by the BPA. Austen Morgan writes that the BPA ‘ignited the expulsions rather than planned and carried them out.’ The most rabid and uncontrollable type of sectarian violence associated with Trew and the BPA had previously been eschewed by the Unionist leadership, concerned above all with the damage it would do to the Unionist cause in the rest of the UK. However, in the politically volatile post-war period, the Unionist mainstream was involved, through the UULA in a propaganda campaign about the dangers of radical socialism and Sinn Fein infiltration of the workplaces of Ulster. Linking subversion to the issue of post-war unemployment was potentially explosive. At a meeting of the UULA in October 1919 during a strike by railway workers , the Unionist MP, Ronald McNeill, claimed Sinn Fein were exploiting the strike and attacked those who were trying to revive suspicion between workers and employers in Belfast. At the same meeting Thompson Donald , a shipwright and long-time unionist labour activist claimed that in Belfast ‘they had Sinn Feiners coming and taking jobs from men who had volunteered and they were getting on to the tramcars.’ In January 1920 the chairman of the West Belfast Unionist Club told a meeting in an Orange Hall on the Shankill Road :
Until the employers of Belfast took up their proper position and cease employing Sinn Feiners and other rebels from the south and west, they could never hope to occupy their right position in the city, which had been built up by Protestant energy and enterprise. The murders going on throughout the country might before long lead to retaliation.
Post-war adjustment had hit the linen industry and also engineering by the winter of 1919/1920. The two shipyards with a combined workforce of over 36000 in 1920 were ironically in terms of the loyalist propaganda about Sinn penetration enjoying boom conditions and were so desperate for labour that wages had reached such a level that many non-shipyard workers were drawn into the labour force. Of the 7500 workers expelled throughout Belfast, approximately 2250 were from the shipyards- just slightly more than the 2000 women who lost their jobs in the linen industry. Most of the expelled were Catholics but there was a substantial minority of Protestants , 1850 in total. At the British TUC conference, the delegate from Belfast of the Painters’s Union claimed that ‘every man who took part in the trade union movement and in the Labour movement had been absolutely driven from the Queen’s Island.’ Of 750 members, 100 had refused to sign loyalty declarations and had been forced out despite most of them being ex-service men and more than twenty being Orange men.’
The expellees were mostly unskilled workers and apprentices. It would seem likely that although many of the skilled trades in the shipyards had small percentages of Catholics, it was amongst the strongly expanding unskilled labour force during the War, that most Catholics got employment . This made them the largest easy target for Unionist and loyalist resentments and fear about the republican campaign . Alastair Reed has suggested that perhaps the expulsions were not actions by skilled Protestant workers against Catholic unskilled workers but those of insecure Protestant workers keen to ensure that their Catholic rivals should be first out in periods of depression. More recently, Robert Lynch has compared the attacks in Belfast to those in other port cities like Glasgow, Liverpool and Cardiff against minority ethnic populations caused by the economic strains of demobilisation and competition for postwar employment and housing. That there was an economic dimension to the expulsions is undeniable and the pressure from unemployed loyalist ex-servicemen was an important part of that. It was seen as a debt of honour owed to them by employers and all those who had remained behind during the War. Carson offered Lord Kitchener 35,000 men and the UVF was kept together in one 36th Ulster Division. Up to April 1916 almost 30,000 UVF men had enlisted. The exploits and massive losses of the Ulster Division at the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 gave Ulster Unionism a new credibility within the Britain while at the same time being a source of proud remembrance in an area like the Shankill Road – after the battle the commander of the West Belfast Battallion, ‘The Shankill Boys’ recorded that of 700 men he had 70 left.
In 1920 as in 1912 Nationalist leaders like Joe Devlin apportioned most of the blame for the expulsions on the shoulders of Carson and Craig and other prominent Unionist for inflaming popular passions. There is no doubt that Carson’s speech was irresponsible and as the Belfast Police Commissioner put it, Unionist leaders could be criticised for their silence on a situation where as the Irish Solicitor General put it in a letter to the main Ulster newspapers: ‘Unionist mobs took into their own hands the tasks of accuser, trial, conviction, sentence and execution.’ But as Paul Bew noted of similar explanations given by Devlin and Liberal politicians in 1912, ‘this desire to stress the role of evil demagogues was a consequence of the widespread desire amongst both the Liberal and nationalist leaderships to suppress the true extent of the division within the Irish masses.’ Catherine Hirst in her study of early sectarian disturbances in Belfast has developed this logic:
Workplace intimidation during riots appears to have been politically motivated, i.e. Catholics were expelled from the shipyards and some mills not primarily in order to provide more Protestants with jobs but to expel and punish individuals who did not share the political convictions of the majority.
This does not mean, as stated by Lynch, that the vast majority of protestant workers in the yards offered vocal support. He offers no source for this claim. Tacit acceptance of the narrative of ‘peaceful penetration’ a broader sense of a community under siege and fear that opposition to expulsions could bring down punishment on their own heads was however undoubtedly a key factor a broader acquiescence in the violence. Attacks on trams carrying shipyard workers by snipers, part of a broader campaign of retaliation and aggression by the IRA made the situation worse. Unionist and Orange Order leaders backed up the narrative of UULA militants justifying the expulsions as an inevitable response to the Sinn Fein IRA offensive in the rest of Ireland now invading Ulster. They ignored the prescient warning of the fading voice of 32 county Unionism, an Irish Times editorial on the expulsions
The rank and file of Belfast Unionism has nothing to gain but everything to lose from disorder which no provocation could justify…..So long as some thousands of Roman Catholics are homeless and workless in Belfast there will be unrest and trouble in the city. Their expulsion is a disaster, if only because it will give the final blow to the settlement of the Irish Question which the North-East counties desire.
Of course by 1923 a settlement of the Irish Question to the satisfaction of the Ulster Unionist leadership had been reached. However, as was implied in the Irish Times editorial it had a central absence: any degree of consent on part of the Catholic minority. As Unionists pointed out at the time and since, this in part reflected an irredentist nationalism claim to the 32 counties. But it also reflected a bitter memory of what was seen as the violence of a overwhelming majority against a defenceless minority.
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