Belfast 1907: Socialism and mass workers' struggle against religious sectarianism

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Printer-friendly versionSend by emailOn the occasion of the centenary of the Belfast summer of working class discontent in 1907, John Gray's account of these historic events - "City in Revolt: Jim Larkin and the Belfast Dock Strike 1907 " - first published in 1985, has been reprinted. Gray is not a revolutionary communist, but a Belfast Librarian, an historian and a trade unionist. At all events he has rendered a great service to the international working class by lifting this struggle out of historical oblivion and making it possible for the present generations to re-appropriate its lessons. The book is all the more remarkable on account of the reproduction of photos capturing the drama and the mass character of these struggle, many of them taken by Alex Hog, a well known Belfast photographer of the time.

Basing itself on Gray's account, this article will attempt to briefly summarise the events and their historical and contemporary significance.

Working Class Belfast

The opening skirmish of the Belfast „summer of discontent" took place at the Sirocco Engineering plant April 26, when non-unionised workers went on strike for higher pay. The company responded with threats to transfer the factory to Germany. The strike ended with the sacking of the "ring leaders" and the workers being obliged to sign a document promising not to join any trade union.

The same day, a spontaneous strike broke out at the coal quay in Belfast harbour over the dismissal of union members. The Belfast branch of the Shipping Federation immediately offered its support to the coal merchant employers. The Shipping Federation was experienced in organising armies of blacklegs and transferring them across Europe. At the moment when the Belfast dispute began, thousands of such strike breakers were finishing off a mass strike in the harbour of Hamburg. Later in the same year, they would leave a bloody trail behind them in Antwerp.

But in Belfast, labour unrest quickly spread to the employees of the Belfast Steamship Company itself - again around the question of unionisation. The union representative on the spot at the time was Jim Larkin, who was later to become famous as a labour leader in Dublin during the Great Lockout of 1913, and as one of the founders of the Communist Party in the United States. Infact Larkin tried to prevent the strike, feeling that it was immature since the workers concerned were not yet organised. The two conflicts in the harbour quickly escalated with the moving in of blacklegs and the locking out of harbour workers by the employers. The strikers chased the blacklegs off the quays, brushing the police aside. May 9 the blacklegs, obliged to take shelter in offshore boats, themselves went on strike and departed for Liverpool. In face of the fierceness of workers resistance, the main employer on the coal quay, Sam Kelly, now capitulated, granting higher wages, and also union recognition to the NUDL - the National Union of Dock Labourers which Larkin was representing. During the ensuing victory march, workers carried Union Jacks (the British national flag) and sang "Britons never shall be slaves."

Thomas Gallaher, owner of a major tobacco company in the city, now intervened in public, criticising that employers had backed off in face of workers resistance, and announcing what he believed to be the real stakes in the conflict: the struggle against socialism and trade unionism. Fresh blacklegs were brought over from Britain. 300 policemen were specially assigned for their protection. They were to be lodged on a ship which would steam out into the middle of Belfast Lough (the bay outside the harbour) each night so that they would be safe from amphibious strikers attacks.

A Mass Movement Develops

At a mass meeting May 16, Larkin linked these struggle to those going on at the same moment in New York and in Montreal, Canada, and to growing unrest in harbours throughout Britain. A dynamic of mass public debate had begun, and that same night a police baton charge was needed to disperse a crown of 2000 workers who were still gathered on the streets. On the same day, Larkin directly challenged Thomas Gallaher, who had called for the unity of all the employers, by holding a lunchtime meeting outside his tobacco factory. The following day, Gallaher sacked seven girls for having attended this meeting. In response, a thousand women employees walked off work and marched to the afternoon strike meeting in Corporation Square. A furious Thomas Gallaher threatened to transfer his tobacco production to Britain. In response to a rumour that shipyard workers were intending to join the dockers in storming the warehouses on Donegall Quay, 200 soldiers were called into the harbour - the beginning of military intervention in this conflict.

May 17, the girls at Gallahers Tobaco were obliged to go back to work - under circumstances which were as unprecedented as they were historically significant. They had been called on by Larkin to join a trade union. Now it turned out that neither the NUDL nor any other union could take on so many new members at one go. Nor was there any financial support available for them. This showed how increasingly inadequate the union form of organisation was becoming in the modern epoch of mass struggle and rapid extension of movements.

Encouraged by the success at Kellys, other coal heavers, dockers and also iron workers came out on strike. In face of general discontent and a growing potential of its spreading, they had their demands quickly satisfied. By mid-June, sailors and firemen were presenting ultimatums to their bosses, iron moulders were out on strike, and the main concentration of workers in the city, those at the shipyards - already heavily involved in solidarity actions with those on strike - were themselves threatening to come out. To this list must be added the many workers who were locked out by their bosses as an indirect result of other strikes, and who were regularly participating in the mass assemblies in the city.

In order to widen and galvanise the strike front, the NUDL under Larkin now put in a general wage increase demand to all the cross-channel operating shipping companies. Many of these enterprises were owned by the big British railway companies, making the whole dimension of the conflict clear, going far beyond the nature of a local dispute. Whereas the local bosses were often inclined to seek a settlement with their employees, the great railway companies openly backed the Belfast Steamship Company, rejecting negotiations and instead calling in a further five hundred troops to guard the quays. The British Army stood arms in hand, faced eye to eye with the Protestant workers of Belfast who - according to loyalist mythology - they were supposed to be defending against the "papist" (i.e. Catholic) workers.

That same day, June 26, the railway workers union - the ASRS - was meeting in Birmingham, where the question of strike action throughout Britain for union recognition was on the agenda. The Belfast strikers had been banking on this strike taking place as a means of spreading the front against the block of the employers - within which the rail companies were playing an increasingly aggressive role. But the ASRS rejected strike action, leaving Belfast in the lurch.

Proletarian Solidarity

By this stage, the massive military presence on the quays was beginning to make the dockers' strike ineffective. With hopes of extending the struggle to Britain dashed, the workers were looking for an alternative response to the increasingly massive and united offensive of the ruling class. The first attempt in this direction was a march of the dockers to the City Hall to pressurise the council chamber (the politicians who ruled the city) who were in session. According to a local press report, they were "marshalled in a long column of fours, and headed by Mr Larkin they marched in military order through the streets gathering an immense crowd at their heels." (Gray. P. 67).

Although the "city fathers" had to admit a delegation of the dockers to their meeting, they refused to make any concessions. But soon, an answer to the army occupation of the quays came from another direction. Towards the end of June, the carters came out on strike out of solidarity with the dockers. These were the workers who picked up the goods which had been unloaded from the ships and brought them into the city on their carts. They thus transferred the conflict from the quays, which could easily be controlled by the military, to the streets of the city. What this meant soon became visible. The first blackleg cart which emerged from the port was immediately surrounded by a crowd of several thousand people - the strikers and their working class supporters from all over the city - who in a kind of spontaneous division of labour either jeered the strike breakers or agitated them to come over to the side of labour. By the afternoon these blacklegs brought over from Glasgow were already asking to be sent home again.

Through the solidarity action of the carters, and of the whole of proletarian Belfast, the workers were able to neutralise the presence of the British Army and give their struggle a new quality. Encouraged by this development, the carters now raised their own demands: a wage rise and a reduction of their working week to sixty hours. The ruling class was taken aback by this development, since it is always difficult for the bourgeoisie to understand the nobility of the class solidarity of the proletariat. The world of a difference between the two classes was well summarised by a spokesman of the employers, who declared: "It is difficult for anyone in our business to conceive why the carters should have thrown in their lot with the dockers who, in my opinion, are an entirely different class of men altogether." (Gray P. 69). The struggle had been transferred to the streets. The streets were ruled by the workers. There were discussions and meetings everywhere. Extension of struggle and of consciousness instead of violent confrontation were the means through which the intervention of the armed capitalist state was counter-acted.

Mass Meetings Against Sectarianism

The movement began with labour disputes mainly involving Protestant workers in and around the port. We have seen the workers celebrating their first small victory by marching under the Union Jack. But we have also seen how these labour disputes became a mass movement involving the working population of the whole of Belfast, facing up together to the might of the British state, the principle world power of the day. With this mass movement on a class terrain, something appeared which had never been seen in Belfast before: a social struggle where workers from the Protestant and Catholic districts fought side by side. With this, a politicisation arose which was not that of British Protestant loyalism or Irish Catholic nationalism, but of the working class itself. On the eve of the twelfth of July, the traditional day of the orange order marches and of sectarian violence throughout Ulster, a mass rally was held in Belfast. Reporting on this event, Police Commissioner Hill commented that "the speakers at the meeting last night did not speak of the strike. They spoke of socialism and generalities." (Gray P.77). The following day, Belfast witnessed the strangest 12th of July ever. Instead of riots and pogroms, strike leaders were getting up in public to defend workers interests against sectarianism.

Infact, already before the July 12 parades, Protestant workers had been writing readers letters to the daily papers taking position against religious sectarianism. One Walter Savage of Ohio Street, for instance, wrote of those: "who have been trying all through this dispute to stir up the old spirit of bigotry and hatred that has kept the labouring classes of this great city so long under the heel of their masters and made them white slaves, and even worse than slaves, for no slave had to work the hours we had to work...from 6 in the morning to 9.30 at night for the first five days in the week and on Saturday from 6 in the morning till 11.30 at night, and a good many of us had to turn out and work a half day on Sundays for the miserable sum of 1shilling...being even deprived of the right of attending our place of worship. I would like to know where the Orangeism or Protestantism of our city comes in? Or what Orangeism or Protestantism has got to do with men fighting for their just rights, when the issue lies not in religion but is a question of bread and butter, and shorter hours and better conditions which we should have had 20 years ago.." (Gray P. 80).

Encouraged by these unprecedented successes, the movement began to employ mass meetings more and more consciously as a weapon against sectarianism. Here is the press report on the declaration, given at the mass meeting at the customs house steps by W.J. Murray, one of the strike leaders, the day after the July 12th loyalist rallies. "They intended to begin a new policy and during the week would hold two meetings daily. At noon each day they would hold a demonstration in that square, and at 7.30 another meeting would be held but in different parts of the city. Hitherto they had held all their meetings at that square, but now they would visit every part of the city and strive to promote a spirit of brotherhood between the Protestant and R.C. workers."

The first of these meetings was held at Tennent Street at the foot of the Protestant Shankill Road on the night of Monday July 15. Two days later, another mass meeting took place at the Catholic Falls Road, where Larkin and the labour leader Alex Boyd from the Protestant districts of the city spoke. A press report of the speech of Boyd tells us: "He was proud of the fact that he could come to Clonard Gardens and address a meeting in his official capacity as the representative of Sandy Row (cheers) and moreover, he was glad to tell them that he saw before him some members of his own constituency." (P. 83)

Here is how John Gray comments these developments in his book.

"The new scheme for meetings could be seen as a logical parallel to the ever-widening theatre of strike activity, but it had an added significance not appreciated at the time. It marked the extension of the movement from one within strictly industrial confines to one aiming at a wider mobilisation. This too was reflected in the rhetoric of the strike leaders who now spoke of a more general social transformation as well as immediate strike objectives." (P. 83).

There were now three mass meetings being held a day, with thousands turning out each time.

Traditional Struggle Forms Becoming Obstacles

By mid July, the crisis was beginning to come to a head. The three main industrial disputes were threatening to paralyse the city. But the hopes of spreading the struggle beyond the city had not been fulfilled. Whole sectors of the working population were reduced to destitution. Many were obliged to go begging in the countryside. Others were admitted to the poorhouses.

In this dramatic situation, the workers looked to the co-operative movement and to the trade unions for support. The Belfast Co-Operative Society was asked to hire its own ships and bring in coal for the workers. But the Co-Op was obliged by its statute to supply its own members first, and soon the coal men were refusing to distribute this coal on the grounds that the co-operative movement was charging exorbitant prices to its working class customers. Trade union funding also failed to alleviate the desperate situation of the strikers, since the whole working class was being reduced to destitution by the long strikes and lock-outs.

At this moment, trade union leaders from Britain arrived in Belfast with the promise of massive material support. But it soon turned out that they had come in order to end the strikes. Despite their rhetoric of solidarity, they set out to break up the strike front piecemeal. Infact, in early July the Belfast Trades Council had to pass a resolution condemning the use of members of the ASRS railway workers union (one of them a branch secretary) as blacklegs on the Belfast quays! Joseph Maddison, president of the Ironfounders Society, alarmed about the state of strike funds, then came to Belfast with an ultimatum. Either the men would accept a one-shilling-a-week increase or forego strike pay. Then the coal men were sent back to work by their union on the basis of an agreement which the strikers did not even support, and which the employers had not even given them in writing.

"Whatever the terms of the settlement, the tactical consequences of the coal men's return were disastrous. For the first time a group of strikers had accepted a piecemeal settlement. Now the dockers and carters were bound to ask should they not attempt to get back while they could. The carters, in particular, had refused generous terms offered at the end of June...precisely because neither offer included the dockers. Larkin and the other leaders had always emphasised the importance of solidarity; Larkin in particular had stressed the value of the sympathetic strike. The strikers had come to understand the principle of "one out, all out" and its corollary "one back, all back". Now the strike leaders, under pressure from the British leaders, had abandoned that principle. More extraordinary and misleading was the attempt to dress up the settlement as a victory (...) Larkin claimed that the coal men were to go back to work next morning with full recognition of their organisation ‘and their demand as to wages conceded‘ (...)The Belfast Evening Telegraph the following day accurately described Larkin's claim as ‘absolutely wrong'." (P. 95).

And Gray continues:

"The same day, Friday 26 July, the mood of false euphoria over the settlement, which was encouraged by all the labour leaders, was given an added boost by a massive demonstration organised by the Trades Council. This showed that the coal settlement was made at a time when there was unprecedented support for the strike movement from all sections of the working class in Belfast. James O'Connor Kessack, a correspondent for Forward, the Glasgow socialist paper, described sitting enthralled in the top of a tram on the Shankill Road as the huge demonstration, two or three miles long, wound past. James Sexton later claimed that 200,000 took part (...) The procession went through the main working-class areas of the city, and in doing so crossed all those sectarian dividing lines that normally so disfigured the life of the city" (P. 96).

Infact, from the onset, the coal men rebelled against the trade union settlement, repeatedly coming out on wildcat strikes and refusing to carry coal to establishments where strikes were still going on.

Belfast and St. Petersburg

Larkin had come over from Liverpool in January 1907 to unionise the unskilled workers of Belfast. According to one popular legend, it was he who instigated the whole class movement there. This is completely untrue. But there is no doubting the devotion of Larkin to the cause of the proletariat, or the positive role he played during the events in Belfast. The fact that even he could be caught up, at certain moments, in the growing logic of trade union containment of workers radicalisation, only goes to show the degree to which this instrument of the class struggle - independently of the will of those involved - was becoming inadequate to the needs of the new period.

Already at the beginning of July, one of the bourgeois newspapers, the Northern Whig, had written that "we are on the eve of an experience something akin to that which has paralysed Russian cities during the past couple of years." (P. 72) This comparison with the mass strikes of 1905 in Russia is very fitting. Both developments were the product of the aggravation of the contradictions of world capitalism, the ripening of the epoch of world war and world revolution. There was also a parallel between Belfast and Russia at the immediate material level: in both cases a very modern and concentrated proletariat working particularly long hours for very low wages. But in Belfast, this extremely miserable situation was not yet typical of the class as a whole in the rest of the United Kingdom, but essentially a product of the local sectarian division within the class. Moreover, as part of the oldest industrial working class in the world, that of Great Britain, the proletariat in Belfast was much more under the weight of trade union traditions than its counterparts in Moscow or Petersburg. We can thus understand that, unlike Russia, there were no workers councils formed in Northern Ireland at the time, and that there were rarely more than a few thousand workers on strike at one go during the summer of discontent.

Nevertheless, the movement in Belfast was an expression of the development of the mass strike as the new form of proletarian struggle in the new epoch of capitalist decline. The most important contribution of 1907 was at the level of public mass meetings as a means of unification of the class.

Religious Sectarianism against the Working Class

Towards the end of July, with the working class, isolated in Belfast, being grounded down in a war of attrition, and being left in the lurch by the very trade unions, the recognition of which it was trying to impose, something happened which took everybody by surprise. July 19 constable William Barrett of the Belfast police refused to sit beside a blackleg driving a motor wagon - and was promptly suspended from duty. On Saturday July 27, over half of the police force of Belfast marched to an illegal solidarity meeting for Barrett at Musgrave Street Barracks - and were joined by thousands of elated strikers.

Of course it was a victory for the workers. The very nature of their movement, its massive and public character, the meetings and demonstrations, the helplessness of the security forces as the workers took control of the streets, the unprecedented situation of unity and not strife between the different working class districts - all of this isolated, disoriented and demoralised the police, turning their own wives and children against them.

But this victory gave rise to a new situation with unprecedented dangers for the proletariat. For one thing it created a vacuum which the workers themselves would have to fill through the establishment of a workers militia. But the masses were too euphoric and their leaders too inexperienced to think of such measures. In the meanwhile, the mob began to creep out of its crevices. For another thing, the alleged breakdown in public order was now used by the British government to justify the military occupation of the whole city, while disguising from the British working class that this move was directly aimed against the proletariat of Belfast.

It is obvious that the ruling class has no interest in a mutiny of its own forces of police repression. But once this mutiny had begun, questions have to be asked about the way it was handled by the British Government. When the question of the police revolt was brought up in parliament in Westminster, the issued was completely played down, and presented as having already been resolved - thus being allowed to simmer on. We cannot exclude that the bourgeoisie, once it was confronted with the unpleasant reality of the mutiny, deliberately allowed the crisis to take its course. At all events, on the dawn of August 1, nine men-of war-ships from the Second Division of the Atlantic Fleet of his majesties government appeared on the shores of Belfast Lough. Four additional regiments of troops were rushed into the city - in all 9,000 troops and 1,000 special police. The next day, the dismissal of Barrett was officially confirmed, six other constables suspended, and 203 others transferred to other parts of the country. Even the local bourgeois press spoke of a "reign of terror".

The workers responded by carrying Barrett on their shoulders from one police barracks to another in a mass demonstration, passing from Protestant to Catholic districts. It was as if they sensed that, with the military occupation of the city, the danger of sectarian violence was back again.

Allegedly sent to restore public order, the army immediately moved to smash the domination of the streets by the carters pickets and their working class supporters. Protestant and Catholic working class districts were equally heavily occupied. By August 8, the army had gained control of the streets. This was the occasion for the Irish nationalist politicians from the Catholic "community", who had been lying low during the strikes, hardly concealing their hostility towards them, to resume their sectarian propaganda.

In face of mounting tensions, the workers movement now made a fatal error. Determined to take the struggle against religious sectarianism to a higher level, it decided to forsake the strict class terrain which had characterised the movement until then, inviting the (bourgeois) political leaders of both communities to address a mass rally August 10. It was the same illusion which is fostered today by the idea that long term peace can be established between the religious communities when the arsons on both sides, the likes of Paisley and Adams, come together to form a government.

The result was that Tom Sloan, the Protestant parliamentary representative invited to speak, stood down at the last moment - leaving the meeting dangerously "unbalanced". As for the Catholic speaker, Joe Devlin, he delivered an inflammatory nationalist speech. He seemed out to provoke a Catholic riot against the army. The Loyalist propaganda, for its part, thankfully seized on this meeting as "proof" that the strike movement had from the beginning been a Catholic nationalist plot.

The next day, the police arrested two drunks fighting on the streets in one of the Catholic districts. Thousands of rioters proceeded to attack the barracks where they were being detained. This was the opportunity the army was waiting for. It invaded the district with 2,600 soldiers and 500 special police forces supported by cavalry, setting the whole district ablaze. The following day, the Gordon Highlanders, traditionally seen as particular friends of the Protestant "community", were set in march through the Shankill Road to the Falls Road. In other words they were seen to be coming straight from the Protestant heartlands of the city to attack its main Catholic ghetto. At 7.25 the riot act was read. Immediately, the soldiers fired up the Falls Road, leaving dead and wounded. The next day, the army withdrew from the area. But not before having driven a wedge between Catholic and Protestant workers. As Gray writes: "All over the city, workers resented the appearance of the Army as a strike breaking force, but otherwise viewed it with very conflicting emotions. Only in nationalist areas was it viewed clearly as a foreign army of occupation. That tendency was exacerbated by the overwhelming level of military force applied to the Falls and one not experienced elsewhere." (P. 144)

At a mass meeting the next day, Larkin declared: "The Lord Mayor invoked the aid of the military with the deliberate intention of sowing seed of dissention among the dockers. The masters rejoiced at the rioting, because it gave them the opportunity of asserting that this was a party struggle. But the cause they were fighting was the cause of the workers against the employers, and Protestants and Catholics were banded together regardless of religion or politics."

That same night, the strikers put up posters all over the city, declaring: "Men of Belfast - don't be misled. The employers of Belfast and the authorities are trying to make the disturbances a party matter, for they know that if they can get the Protestants and Catholics to fight they can beat the workers." (P. 146).

Despite these appeals, this violence spelled the end of the mass meetings with their huge working class, non sectarian crowds which were the backbone of the strike movement - which from then on was doomed to defeat.

Religion and Capitalist Competition

Among the attentive readers of these lines, there may be some who - at least until reaching the tragic end of our narrative - have been asking themselves: Is there not something wrong here? Is this remarkable workers struggle really supposed to have taken place in Belfast? The same Belfast which, over the last century and a half, has consistently been the main bastion in all of western Europe of religious violence and bigotry?

What these events illustrate, is that there is not one Belfast, not one capitalist reality, but two - just as there are two main classes in bourgeois society, each the carrier of a different social principle. The great contribution of capitalism to the advancement of humanity was the creation, for the first time, of a single world economy. In doing so, it liquidated, or at last shook up and connected to the world, all the narrow and parochial communities with their superstition and bigotry, which pre-capitalist class society had brought forth. But it did not do so without reproducing this narrowness and bigotry at a higher level. Yes, capitalism did create a world economy. But it created it on the basis of a world market, on the principle of competition. As such it pitted each plant, each company, each nation state, but also each community and religious group against all the others.

The history of Ireland illustrates well this dialectic. Through a series of "plantations", the English ruling classes attempted repeatedly to eliminate the indigenous population by removing it from the soil. All of these plantations failed, because they were an expropriation to the benefit of a tiny aristocracy which needed the local rural population to work the land for it. The only "successful" plantation was that of Ulster, because there, the pauperised indigenous peasantry was replaced, (although not entirely) not only by absentee landlords, but by a new and hardly less pauperised population brought over in particular from Scotland.

But the success of this operation was inseparably linked to the triumph of the bourgeois revolution in England itself. This revolution was fought out in the name of Puritanism against feudal Catholicism. Its shining shield and sword, Oliver Cromwell, already prepared the way for what was to come. During his military campaign in Ireland, Cromwell committed atrocities on a new scale and of a new quality, leaving behind him a heritage of religious hatred. In England itself, the "Glorious Revolution" ended in a compromise between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, and in the ferocious repression of the lower classes which had taken the biblical millennialism of the revolutionary period literally. Although these layers of the urban and rural poor lost their revolutionary zeal, becoming narrow minded and bigoted, they retained their suspicion towards the "Establishment" and their hatred of Catholicism. The new bourgeois order in Britain was thus doubly happy to get rid of them. This was achieved by sending them to Ulster, where they could be pitted against the Irish Catholic poor (just as, in North America, the puritan communities and sects were originally used to oust and then eliminate the indigenous population).

The industrial revolution in Northern Ireland thus took place in this pre-existing context, and soon reproduced the situation of the countryside in the cities. There, segregated residential patterns had already been established by the mid nineteenth century. From then on, any attempt of one of the two religious groups to spread its settlement beyond its own area was regularly answered by pogroms and house wrecking from the other side. And if, in Belfast in particular, Catholic districts such as the Falls or the Ardoyne were veritable ghettos, the Protestant workers districts such as the Shankill were no less poverty stricken. Daily life on both sides was organised and completely dominated by religion and the clergy, so that ever those employers who were opposed to religious sectarianism, or had grasped that in the long term it would prove economically counter-productive, were more or less obliged to abide by its rules of segregation. The result, from 1832 on, was sectarian rioting at least every decade. The last outbreak of major community violence of this kind before the 1907 summer of discontent had been in 1901.

This violence in turn was used to mobilise the population behind the different competing fractions of the ruling class. The loyalist bourgeoisie taught the "Protestant workers" that their "prosperity" depended on the link with Britain, which they claimed the Irish Catholic bourgeoisie wanted to sever. But in reality, the goal of the latter part of the ruling class at the time was "Home Rule". This meant that the Irish bourgeoisie wanted to participate, as junior partner, in the exploitation of the British Empire.

This is the history and the pre-history of Belfast in the epoch of the rise of capitalism - its local history. And at this level, the city on the Lagan has been one of the most horrific and sordid spots on the face of the earth.

But there is another Belfast, that of the working class, the class of international solidarity. Belfast was, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a great industrial city and seaport, the fastest growing city in the British Isles. Harland and Wolff, with 12,000 employees, was the largest shipyard in the world. A second shipyard, Workman and Clark, with 7,000 workers, was known locally as the "wee yard". The largest Linen Mill and the largest rope factory in the world were also located in Belfast (see chapter one of Gray's book).

Lacking in socialist education, the working class for half a century had been trapped in religious views of the world. But we have seen how the proletarian struggle liberated the workers from this trap, pitting them against world capitalism. We have seen how their exploiters threatened to transfer production to Britain or even to Germany. We have seen how the ruling class was ready to bring in strike breakers from all over Europe. We have seen how the workers learnt to unite in struggle and to consciously and systematically combat the divisions within their ranks. And we have seen how, in this process, the workers began to develop a socialist perspective, and, in so doing, to throw off the dead weight of religion.

Of course it was only a beginning, and the struggles of 1907 ended in defeat. The lessons of 1907 lay buried for decades under the debris of sectarian violence. But the proletarian Belfast, once it asserted itself, never fully disappeared. It re-asserted itself in 1919, during the world wide revolutionary wave of workers struggles, and among the unemployed in the 1930s. Then, as very recently with the postal workers demonstration of 2006, the workers of the Protestant and Catholic districts of Belfast stood together as proletarians.

This is the lesson of 1907, a perspective for how to respond to religious or community division. A perspective for Belfast, for Baghdad, for Beirut, for Bombay, for the whole of humanity, as part of an international struggle of the only class capable of world wide solidarity.

Ted D, September 2007.