The Belfast Shipyard Expulsions and Their Aftermath, 21st July 1920…

The general election held in 1918 had completely transformed the post-war politics of Ireland, with the Sinn Féin candidates winning a majority of FPTP seats by a landslide vote. These newly elected members boycotted Westminster and established an alternative assembly in Dublin on 21st January 1919. Despite the mounting campaign of political violence that had also developed during 1919 and in early 1920, by July Robert Lynd could still accurately write,

“So far as the mass of people are concerned, the policy of the day is not active but a passive policy. Their policy is not so much to attack the Government as to ignore it and to build up a new government by its side,”

The situation in the northern counties developed differently. Catholic Belfast had virtually ignored Sinn Féin and nationalists, many of them ex-servicemen, had continued voting for the Irish Parliamentary Party. While a violent Unionist response to the challenge posed by a Nationalist majority on the local council had led to open conflict in Derry in June, in Belfast, where Catholics made up one in four of the population, any Republican presence was still both minimal and ineffectual. Into this politically contained situation, Sir Edward Carson threw a challenge on the Unionists of the north “to act” against this virtually non-existent Sinn Féin influence in his July address to the Belfast Orangemen.

Tensions already very high when 12thJuly 1920 began. As Carson had travelled to Belfast two days previously rumours circulated of an attempt to kidnap him and other northern Unionists. The “Twelfth” took place with the roads into Belfast blocked by barbed wire barricades manned by troops who vetted those entering the town. The LOI Procession had marched to Finaghy, where Carson spoke.

“We in Ulster will tolerate no Sinn Féin…….I hope you have got that pretty clear. I hate words without action……We will take matters into our own hands.”

As The Times stated the following day, relating this call to violence to his entire northern career, “Upon Sir Edward Carson lies, largely, the blame for having sown the Dragon’s teeth in Ireland.”

Action such as he had requested was quick to follow. The nominal cause was indignation at the IRA assassination of the District RIC Commissioner for Munster by the IRA, Gerald Smyth, following his encouragement of a policy of arbitrary reprisal (“The more you shoot, the better I will like you”) that had led to a significant number of resignations from the RIC. Despite being born in India, Smyth was from a Banbridge Family and was considered an Ulsterman.

The morning after his funeral, the 21st July, was the first day back at work following the Twelfth Holiday fortnight.  Members of the militant Belfast Protestant Association had put up posters on the gates of Queen’s Island calling for meeting of “all Unionist and Protestant workers” at lunchtime. A sizable group of workers from the Workman Clarke Shipyard came over to the Harland & Wolff Yard at lunchtime and held an informal meeting, attended by around five thousand Harland & Wolff workers. Resolutions were passed calling on the workforce to refuse to work alongside “Sinn Feiners”. A group of around a thousand strong, mostly drawn from unskilled and non-unionised workers, craftsman’s assistants such as heater boys and plater’s helpers, now armed with hammers, iron bars, heavy sticks and piles of steel rivets and bolts, then entered the east yard of Harland & Wolff. They broke up into smaller groups led by workers carrying Union Flags and worked through the yard and the joiners shop picking out known Socialist and Catholic workers, and any of those other workers attempting to defend them. Many of these were severely beaten, and a significant number were hospitalised. With the yard gates closed to contain the violence, the purge continued through the afternoon.

As late as five o’clock the trams passing near Abercorn Road were still being searched for fleeing Catholic workers. Passengers were rough handled with collars torn open to search for crosses or holy medals, and those identified were removed and badly beaten. Police and  soldiers from Holywood  “with fixed bayonets” were called to the scene and the mob was dispersed. Around seven thousand five hundred workers in all would finally be expelled, roughly a quarter of the workforce; one thousand eight hundred of them “Rotten Prods” (Protestants insufficiently committed to Unionism) including many of those socialists who had successfully organised strikes the previous year. Ironically, many of those from both confessional groups who were expelled were the very ex-service men in whose name the expulsions were being carried out.

The role the Workman Clarke workforce played is significant. Pre-war employment at Workman Clarke had usually required LOI “vouching”. Frank Workman played a leading role in the UUC and his partner George Clarke was on the military committee of the Ulster Unionist Council. Workman Clarke was regarded as a “Unionist yard” where seven hundred of its Catholic workers, a significant part of its nine thousand strong workforce, had been expelled along with a number of Protestant Trade Union Activists during the June disturbances in 1912. Both shipyards between them had raised six battalions for the UVF between them in 1913, but the Workman Clarke yard was noted for its particularly high degree of militancy. This was recognised with the formation in the yard of an elite unit, the Special Service Force, subject to an immediate mobilisation as required. Edward Carson had regarded the Special Service Force as the unit on call that could be expected to re-take the headquarters of the Provisional Government from the occupying RIC in March 1914 if Churchill’s arrest plan for the Provisional Government had been carried out as planned. This Force continued a shadow existence during the war and would later provide the nucleus of the paramilitary Imperial Guard, formed in 1921. Its leaders were behind the Vigilance Committees formed in the yards in July 1920.

News of the brutality of the expulsions spread through the city. Those wounded during the expulsions were moved to the Royal Victoria and the Mater Hospitals. With stories of possible dead circulating, angry crowds gathered in different parts of the city. With rush hour, a tram carrying workers through Cromac Square was disabled by pulling its trolley of the electrical wires and those occupants wearing dungarees were forced off and beaten by a group of the expelled workers living in the markets area. Trams were similarly attacked at  Short Strand.

Catholic workers walking to homes in east Belfast were attacked. A full scale Loyalist led riot developed in Ballymacarrett around the top end of Seaforde Street where the vulnerably placed St Matthews Catholic Church was attacked by a mob throwing cobbles against the building. Defenders gathered. As the RIC attempted to break up the fighting between both groups with baton charges they were answered with fusillades of cobbles and were unable to separate the two groups; detachments of the Norfolk Regiment with light machine guns were called in.

Around seven o’clock confrontations also developed on the Kashmir Road area between the Falls and the Shankill in West Belfast, as Catholic spirit grocers along Conway Street were raided by Shankill mobs and as the tensions grew, in nearby Canmore and Crossland streets. Beer barrels were taped on the streets and cases of spirits carried away to  “encourage” the rioters. Opposing groups of rioters from the Falls and the Shankill directly confronted each other in Cupar Street. Early volleys of cobbles exchanged were succeeded by bursts of revolver fire from both sides, and the first instances in Belfast of the deadly sniper activity that would become unbquitious over the next two years.  The military were called in and by 9 pm the first of several men to be killed that night had been shot. Later in the evening a friar was picked off by a Loyalist sniper as he looked from a window of Clonard Monastery. Troops were rapidly called in from Holywood and Newtownards and armoured cars were sent to clear crowds in the Falls Road and dislodge the Loyalist snipers with bursts of Lewis gun fire. By 3.10 am the Falls/Shankill riots had completely ended

Most of the rest of the city had calmed down by midnight but in the early hours of the morning there were renewed flare-ups at Ballymacarrett where mobs gathered. These Ballymacarrett riots rapidly developed into an extensive orgy of property destruction against a large number of businesses along the Newtownards Road and the Albert Bridge road. As the riots intensified properties owned by Catholics and “rotten Prods” were targeted. They had windows broken and were extensively looted, while some were burnt out. Pubs and spirit grocers were particularly targeted, and the violence soon spread into residential side roads. In succeeding days around a full quarter of those living and trading along both roads and in the adjacent streets were intimidated or burnt out of their homes.

The Rev. John Redmond, the Church of Ireland vicar of Ballymacarrett, went amongst the rioters attempting to restore order. He later told the press “of all the men taking part in the destruction of property only one appeared to be over twenty-three years …while quite an appreciable proportion were boys under eighteen years.” On the second night of the riots Councillor David Thompson, (Ulster Unionist Labour Association) assisted by Rev. Redmond, began to organise patrols of ex-service men in an attempt to control the looting. Despite their efforts spirit grocers and other small traders that had survived the violence of the previous night were still looted and some of them set ablaze on Templemore Avenue, Willowfield Street, Beersbridge Road and Rosebury Road. Firemen trying to put out the blazes had their hosepipes cut through. In all sixty spirit groceries and twelve pubs were wrecked over the first two nights of rioting.

This ad-hoc “political cleansing” created a climate of fear that was something new even in a town long plagued by sectarian riots. The assault on the mixed composition of the Ballymacarrett area was very different in scale to the limited work expulsions and house evictions that had occurred during the June/July rioting of 1912 and during the earlier sectarian rioting in Belfast. The attacks carried out on businesses during the first nights was now developed into an organised campaign of threats against individuals and families and by the opportunistic seizures of businesses, so that in a short period such intimidation entirely altered the character of East Belfast.  From having been a very mixed area where around a quarter of the businesses had been owned by Catholic families, east Belfast was transformed into a monocultured Protestant preserve.

Those Catholic (or “Rotten Prod”) owned businesses that had not been attacked in the early riots now experienced targeted intimidation. Shop owners were expected to wipe the slate clear on old bills and to not charge for produce that was now simply taken. The message was made very clear. This process was completed over August and September of 1920, with the organised consolidation of homogeneous ghettos and the seizure across the city of businesses whose owners had been warned what they could expect if they failed to depart by the initial destruction of over one hundred and fifty Catholic owned businesses in Ballymacarrett, something repeated on a smaller scale in succeeding riots elsewhere. In early September the Daily Herald reported that to date “Ninety-five per cent of the property destroyed by fire was caused by Unionists.”

Over the last week of July those Catholics or  “unreliable Protestants” employed at the Sirocco Works, Musgrave & Co, Combe Barbour, Fairbain & Lawson, James Mackie & Co and a number of the cities linen mills were in turn ordered to leave and make way for unemployed Protestants prepared to take their places. By late September attention shifted to service industries. Private clubs, hotels and restaurants were served warning about employment policy, and a “clean sweep” was carried out of Catholic employees. Many middle class protestant families who employed Catholic servants now laid them off to avoid targeting. By the end of August around ten thousand workers had been expelled from employment

In the shipyards, and at the Sirocco works, the effect of the expulsions was felt with work still seriously understaffed in certain skills; there were considerable problems at the Sirocco as a number of those expelled had specialist skills and could not be replaced.  Key figures in the senior drawing office design staff and laboratory staff had been driven out during the purge and production was effected. Harland and Wolff were still four hundred joiners down on their needs in late September and were negotiating with the controlling works vigilance committee for the return of the expelled workers with no effect.

Registration offices sited at St Mary’s Hall opened in early August to provide basic sustenance for the Expelled Workers in Belfast with an estimated two thousand immediately enrolling.  During the autumn, an appeal was made for funds all over Ireland and abroad, and first payments were made on 19thAugust. Approximately eight thousand one hundred and forty male and female wage earners registered on the Roll of the Expelled Worker’s Committee by early October, with on average twenty-three thousand one hundred and forty persons in all regularly receiving daily relief from the fund. In addition the St Vincent de Paul society organised parallel relief schemes, where food and clothing were also distributed to refugees. By Christmas of 1920 six hundred and fifty homes had been burnt in all, and eight thousand households were compelled to move by intimidation.

Over the next twenty months this pattern of sectarian violence would continue, reaching an intensity in the six months following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. In 1922 the greater number of the refugees of 1920 were still accommodated in school halls and in crowded terrace houses, often shared since the first months of the pogroms by more than one family. The political agreements required the full return of the expelled workers to their employment. The on-going conflict of these months, alongside a lack of any will within the Unionist administration, conspired to ensure that such a return to employment would simply not occur and many of those driven from skilled work in 1920 would not return to employment until the skill shortages of WWII created openings two decades later. The deep slump that accompanied the birth of Northern Ireland lasted across the 1920s and inhibited the employment of any but the personally vouched supporters of the status quo. This merged with the worldwide effects of the economic collapse of 1929, and created an employment imbalance which would be a feature of how Northern Ireland would continue to function over its first half century.

My thanks to “Korhomme”, Stiofán Ó Direáin, Patrick Concannon and Claire Mitchell for their input on an earlier draft.