This strike is often known as the ‘engineering’ strike but is better described as a ‘general strike’ as around 60,000 of the city’s workers took industrial action. It is cited by labour historian John Gray as the most ‘formidable’ strike in Belfast’s history.[1]

This industrial action was part of a wave of labour disputes that spread across Britain and Ireland. These included industrial action on so called ‘Red Clydeside’ in Glasgow, a series of strikes took place that that resulted in strikers congregating in George Square in the centre of Glasgow on 31 January 1919.[2] The city authorities, fearing a potential revolution and public disorder, deployed the army and police to suppress the public gathering. Clydeside had a reputation for being heavily socialist (hence called ‘red’) as the union movement had organised anti-war protests and industrial action throughout the First World War, notably rent strikes. They were deemed to be sympathetic to the Bolshevik Revolution that had taken place in Russia.[3]

In Belfast, strike action had started on 24 January. Workers from across the cities utilities – electricity, gas and water supplies – went on strike along with 30,000 shipyard workers. The strikers wanted a reduced working week from around 54 hours per week to 44 hours week with no loss of pay.

An agreement between the Lord Mayor and the strikers allowed the use of gas and electricity for vital services and the Royal Irish Constabulary agreed to enlist 300 strikers as special constables to assist in maintaining order.[4]

John Gray has suggested that the strike in Belfast did not have the socialist flavour of the strikes on Clydside. The Belfast strike was led by local trade union officials and officers who were not part of a ‘revolutionary vanguard’.[5] Gray pointed to the fact that there was talk of the strike committee functioning as a ‘labour parliament’ but no more than that. Also, the Northern Whig was able to re-assure its readers that ‘as far as Belfast is concerned Bolshevism does not exist [6]’ 

Some workers appeared to resent labour leaders from others parts of the UK coming to speak to them at meetings. During a rally in Donegall Square on 31 January 1919, Mr John O’Hagan, addressed the crowd. One heckler asked whether he was an ‘Ulsterman’ to which he replied ‘no’. The heckler said that ‘the black north can take care of itself anyway without either Larkins, O’Hagans or Russian Jews.’ One member of the Federation Strike Committee said that he did not like speakers like O’Hagan addressing the crowd, as they wanted ‘no Sinn Feiners or Bolsheviks’. After this, two sailors mounted the stage and said they had fought ‘the Hun and beat him, they had built the ships that had kept the war going and they could if they held on win their 44-hour work…but…they wanted no Bolshevism nor Sinn Feinism, and they certainly wanted no breaking of windows nor destroying of property. Let it be a clean fight between workmen and employers without any dirty work’.[7]

The strike ended on 20 February 1919 without success. The strike action in Glasgow was largely ended by 12 February when strike leadership was arrested under the Defence of the Realm Act. Belfast was left alone. On 14 February, an offer of 47 hours was rejected by strikers voting 11,963 to 8,774. On the same day, the army managed to get get the gas works functioning with blackleg labour and using DORA. Three days latter, the strike committee called an end to the dispute.

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[1] http://www.rebelnews.ie/2019/01/29/belfast-general-strike-of-1919/ Accessed 9.5.22.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_George_Square Accessed 9.5.22.

[3] For more information see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Clydeside#1911_strike_at_Singer Accessed 9.5.22.

[4] http://www.rebelnews.ie/2019/01/29/belfast-general-strike-of-1919/ Accessed 9.5.22.

[5] http://www.rebelnews.ie/2019/01/29/belfast-general-strike-of-1919/ Accessed 9.5.22.

[6] http://www.rebelnews.ie/2019/01/29/belfast-general-strike-of-1919/ Accessed 9.5.22.

[7] Northern Whig, 31 January 1919, p.2.