Belfast Riots in July 1920 – Background and Consequences

The immediate causes were the shooting of Smyth in Cork (he was from Banbridge) and the tensions arising from the 12th July (fanned by Carson). The long termer causes were fears about jobs by Protestant workers.  Parkinson notes that unemployment was 26% in Belfast at this time after post-war depression.  Protestant workers felt they were taking their ‘own’ jobs back.   

Parkinson says there was about 93,000 Catholic workers in the city at this time (Parkinson (2004), pgs 33-35) and he estimates that around 10,000 workers expelled including several hundred female textile workers.   He says that most of the expulsions occurred within the first few days but some intimidation did occur into the following month and even into early September when Catholic workers would be forced out of work for refusing to sign ‘loyalty’ documents.  Also, included were about 1,800 Protestant trade unionists and socialists who were also expelled from their work – the latter were called ‘rotten Prods’ by the unionist leadership (Parkinson (2004), pgs 35-36 & 328).  Parkinson further estimates that over the period of the conflict in Belfast (i.e. up to summer 1922), over 20,000 Catholics were displaced (Parkinson (2004), pg 62).  

Parkinson also says that there is little evidence that Unionist Party had organised expulsion but that the Unionist leaders failed to condemn them.  Carson was later to express his ‘pride’ in the actions of his shipyard ‘friends’ (Parkinson (2004), pg 31).  He goes onto say “members of the BPA and other loyalist splinter groups undoubtedly benefited from easy access to their considerable arsenal and were certainly responsible for the initial industrial expulsions and several sectarian murders.  Although the unionist establishment may not have co-ordinated the campaign of violence, it is undeniable that the Belfast authorities had been bracing themselves for an outbreak of communal disturbances during the summer of 1920.” (Parkinson (2004), pg 309). He goes on to say that the more incisive deployment of troops in Belfast would have probably reduced the level of violence.  McDermott says that “There is no significant evidence that the unionist leadership ordered the expulsions from the shipyards … but … the expulsions mark the beginning of what … the whole of the nationalist community called the ‘pogroms’.” (McDermott (2001), pg 33)

The response by a number of prominent nationalists and republicans in the North in August (including Sean McEntee; Denis McCullough; Bishop McRory and Rev John Hassan) is to set a ‘Belfast Boycott Committee’ which aims to force Belfast businesses to take back expelled Catholic workers by pushing a vigorous boycott of all goods produced in Belfast.  They have success with county councils in the South and, while initially reluctant, the Dáil takes responsibility for it from January 1921.