The Belfast Dockworker’s Strike and James Larkin.

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“It would be Larkin’s boast that the basic core of the strike which he, a Catholic, was leading, was Protestant and Orange.” (Patterson, 1980, p.68)

 

The 1907, Belfast Dockworker’s Strike, is often viewed as a seminal moment in Irish history. It is romanticised, as period of time in the tumultuous and sectarian history of Belfast, when workers threw aside religious/political differences for the good of the working-classes.  For a few months in the summer of 1907 members of the Orange Order and Republican Socialist banded together to challenge big business’ treatment of workers.  This was the first time that a “serious test of the Trades Disputes Act 1906”   was to take place since it had been passed in parliament.  It would also see the only munity of police officers in the history of the RIC; they would strike and refuse to act against fellow workers. But it was the ability of an unknown Liverpool docker and union organiser, James Larkin, which would really capture the public imagination and lay the foundation for more decisive and successful struggle in Dublin.

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James Larkin was born to Irish migrant workers, in Liverpool in 1867.  His parents had migrated to Liverpool from County Armagh, due to the adversity caused by famine and economic hardship.  He would find work at the Liverpool Docks, the largest in the country, outside London, when he was old enough.  He would be known for his hard work ethic, earning him the moniker “the rusher”, and was to reach the position of foreman by 1903.  A year later he would marry the daughter of a Baptist preacher, Elisabeth Brown.  By 1905 he was to have an influential role in the Liverpool strike.  He was appointed temporary organiser of National Union of Dock Labourers. This would soon be made permanent, with his travelling to organise branches.

 

By 1907 Belfast was the fastest growing city in the United Kingdom.  Its industrial base was flourishing, as was its shipbuilding.  It had become the world’s most prolific linen producer and had the world’s biggest shipyard.  By this point it was also the third largest port in the British Empire, only being surpassed by London and Liverpool, with an annual tonnage of just over 3.000.000 tonnes.  It was in this background: mass industrialisation that James Larkin first became acquainted with Belfast and its dockers.  In January, 1907, the emergent Labour Party picked Belfast as the venue for its first party conference. James Larking was picked as a representative of the National Union of Dock Labours at the conference.

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The first signs of trouble came in early summer when The Belfast Steam Company refused to recognise the right of its workers to organise a union. The company was owned by Thomas Gallaher who, had had a run in with Larkin over organising his tobacco workers.  Gallaher brought labours in from Liverpool and would not re-employ the workers or meet Larkin.  Dr Austen Morgan, sates that it was not the numbers involved that was important but only when it “spread through picketing, causing considerable economic and social dislocation in central Belfast” that the authorities started to take notice.  The dispute initially involved one hundred and sixty workers who were mostly Protestants.  Dr Austen Morgan would relay that the origins of the dispute are now confused when he stated, “The strike took place within the protestant community, contrary to historical mythology”.  This was the remarkable aspect of the strike: a considerable number of not only Protestants but also members of the Orange Order became fervent supporters of Larkin. Alex Boyd and Lindsay Crawford with other orange leaders had “created favourable conditions for the local labour movement “at the time.  Later speaking in Dublin, Larkin would say that orange supporters:

 

“…were there that day to say that the old sectarian curse had been banished for ever in Ulster.  Ninety per cent of the strikers were members of the old Orange Institution.” 

 

As well as, the significance of the sectarian divide being breeched, a major historical incident was to take place within context of the historical event we know as the Dockers’ Strike: the Police Mutiny.  During the 1907 Dock Strike, RIC offices influenced by the rhetoric of Larkin and who had sympathy with strikers began to agitate for better conditions for police officers.  While the police rate of pay was much better than the dockers and carters, they could not reside in lower-class neighbourhoods, this led to a large part of their income being exhausted on rent or lodgings. In late June, a number of letters started to appear in the Belfast print media. They complained about conditions, long hours and stated the police “were willing to strike” and went on that they “need a Larkin of their own”. Larkin would comment on the feelings within the Belfast RIC region and the fact that the police “were working eighteen hours a day, and they would go on strike too – only they dare not”.  This would soon turn from literary rebellion to literal.

 

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On the 19th July, just a number of days after the coal-carters’ lockout, a detective constable stationed at Roden Street, William Barrett, refused to accompany blackleg drivers.  He was suspended from duty.  Within three days the Irish News had published a circular, in which, Barrett called for a meeting in Belfast’s Musgrave Street.  Around three hundred officers attended and a petition was sent to the government, with the resolutions that the meeting carried.  Barrett was dismissed as a result of the action.  On the 27th July five hundred men, half the police officers stationed in Belfast marched from Musgrave Street to Custom House Square, carrying Barrett on their shoulders.  On the Monday, 29th, the Irish News carried the headline “Belfast Police Make History.”  The next day, Dublin Castle moved twelve hundred troops into Belfast and transferred almost third of the police stationed in the city to other areas.

This action brought the strike to an end but the remarkable events in Belfast would give a lasting loss in the labour movement’s psyche of what might have been.    The foundation, that would ensure that nothing like the 1907 strike would take place again, was laid in 1906. The Liberals had won the British General election of that year and soon the national question or Ireland’s Home Rule would soon take central stage.  This would prevent the circumstances, that brought Larkin to the fore, enabling him to unite different side of the sectarian divide on class and social issues, from happening again. Professor Henry Patterson would observe “The strike’s conclusion and developments outside Belfast forced an end to their myopia.”

Emmet Larkin would regretfully remark that “This break up of an alliance so pregnant with possibilities was the real tragedy and lesson of Belfast in 1907”.

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