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Belfast Shipyard Clearances of 1920

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Several factors - economic, political and cultural coincided on 21 July 1920 which led to a mass expulsion or "clearing" of Catholics, Socialists and Protestants (that were considered disloyal) from Belfast's shipyards, foundries, linen mills and other commercial concerns.[1] The workplace expulsions took place at a time when northern Irish Unionists were concerned with the ongoing violence in the south of Ireland (the Irish War of Independence) and the introduction of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 (which resulted in the Partition of Ireland). Other factors were the increased level of violence against senior members of the army/police and politicians: the assassinations of Belfast City Councilman William J. Twaddell, British Army Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson, Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) District Inspector Swanzy and RIC Divisional Commissioner Lt Col Gerald Rice Smyth.[2]

Also contributing to the onset of intense communal violence were the bleak economic conditions of post war Belfast. Following the end of World War I a severe economic recession occurred in Belfast and in other northern Irish cities. At the end of the war many workers were made redundant, hours were reduced and many returning servicemen were unable to find work. Returning World War I soldiers often felt bitterness against the many Catholics who they felt had remained at home and now held jobs.[3] At the same time fiery political speeches were made by Unionist leaders and there was stockpiling of weapons by both communities - Irish Unionists/Protestants and Irish Nationalists/Catholics.[4][5]

Shipyard Clearances[edit]

After the annual July 12th holiday in 1920, shipyard workers returned to work and a meeting was called of "all Unionist and Protestant workers" during the lunch hour that day (21 July 1920). With approximately 5,000 workers present, speeches were made demanding the expulsions of all non-loyal workers. After hours of intimidation and violence most Catholic and Socialist workers were driven from Harland and Wolff and other shipyards.[6] Some Catholic workers were thrown into the water and pelted with rivets etc as they swam for their lives.[7] Expulsions continued for several days after at work locations across Belfast to include several hundred female textile workers.[8] Catholics and Socialists were driven out of other large firms such as Mackies Foundry and Sirocco Engineering Works. In the rioting that followed seven Catholics and six Protestants were killed (21 July 1920).[9]

The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and soon to be the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Sir James Craig made his feelings on the expulsions clear when he visited the shipyards: "Do I approve of the actions you boys have taken in the past? I say yes."[10] The expulsion of thousands of Catholic workers from the shipyards was followed by retaliatory attacks on Protestant workers returning home after work, starting a cycle of communal violence which continued for over two years.[11]


  1. Moore, Cormac (15 July 2020). "The eruption of sectarian violence in Belfast's shipyards during July 1920 would define Belfast's future". The Irish News. Retrieved 5 May 2022.
  2. Parkinson, Alan F. (2004), Belfast's Unholy War. Four Courts Press, pg 276, ISBN 1-85182-792-7
  3. Parkinson, pgs 33-34
  4. Lynch, Robert (2006), The Northern IRA and the Early Years of Partition, Irish Academic Press, Newbridge, Ireland, pp 28, ISBN 978-0716533771
  5. Parkinson pg 41
  6. Glennon, Kieran (27 October 2020). "The Dead of the Belfast Pogrom". The Irish Story. Retrieved 21 March 2022.
  7. Lawlor, Pearse (2009). The Burnings. Cork: Mercier Press. p. 92. ISBN 978 1 85635 612 1. Search this book on
  8. Parkinson, pg 33-34
  9. McMahon, Sean (2011). A Brief History of Belfast. Brehon Press Ltd. p. 142. ISBN 978-1-905474-24-0. Search this book on
  10. Macardle, Dorothy, The Irish Republic (1951), Ambassador Books, Ltd, Toronto, pg 387
  11. Magill, Christopher, (2020),Political Conflict in East Ulster, 1920-22, Boydell Press, Woodbridge, pg 182, ISBN 978-1-78327-511-3

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