The Ulster Rail Strike – A Lesson From History


Some time back, I came across a “contribution card” for donations in support of striking railwaymen in Northern Ireland. Placing this card, and the strike in historical context shed some light on a story of the working man’s struggle in the 1930s, and in some ways was made more dramatic by its political as well as its economic backdrop.

From midnight on the 30th January 1933, railwaymen as members of ASLE&F and the NUR employed by the Great Northern Railway (GNR) of Ireland went on strike. The Railway Clerks Association (RCA) members did not join in initially, but by 6th February, the railway company issued dismissal notices to the staff, and the RCA then became involved. The LMS (NCC) railway company also suggested they may issue dismissal notices to staff if the strike was to continue. Other transport workers were sympathetic to the railwaymen’s position, with dockers refusing to handle goods traffic, and bus company employees joining the dispute.

The strike lasted until 7th April, as working people fought to keep their wages intact, and struggled against the economic depression and austerity of the inter-war period. There are parallels today with current disputes, intransigent management and threats from proposed Trades Union legislation that compare with what went on in 1933.

The railwaymen lost this most bitter dispute, which lasted 67 days, with consequences for individuals that were often disastrous. For the company it was a pyrrhic victory, with no positive effect on their financial or operational standing.

The National Wages Board

The strike was a direct result of the railways, through the National Wages Board, attempting to implement a 10% pay cut in the employees’ wages, in the naive idea that this would resolve their financial problems and counteract competition from road transport.   At that time, buses and road freight was a free for all market, with no regulation.

In December 1932, Sir Ralph Wedgwood of the LNER claimed that the wages cut was needed to “improve railway credit”, “justice to the railway shareholders”, and the “need to bring down railway costs”.

NPG x122142; Sir Ralph Lewis Wedgwood, 1st Bt by Bassano

Sir Ralph Wedgwood – who’s comments in December 1932 was seen as harsh, and would add fuel to the fire:  by Bassano, whole-plate glass negative, 11 December 1922

NPG x152307; Sir Harold Spencer Morris by Bassano

Sir Harold Morris – Directed the National Wages Board Enquiry into the issues on both sides:  by Bassano, whole-plate glass negative, 11 December 1922

Needless to say, the railway Unions rejected such drastic reductions, with wages having already been cut over the previous couple of years. The railway companies’ proposal was subjected to an enquiry, directed by former Liberal MP, Sir Harold Morris. Under Morris’s direction the 10% cut would include a 4% cut in wages already approved in 1931.


In Northern Ireland, the Stormont Government was drawn into the dispute, and the source of some heated debates. Even as the strike drew to a close, some members seemed to be advocating continued confrontation. In the South, the Irish Free State – which included a major portion of the Great Northern Railway – saw equally interesting debates, with Mr De Valera’s Government initially “subsidising” the Wages Board pay cuts for employees in the Free State, by funding the difference between the cuts, and existing rates of pay.

As with the 1919 strike, troops with machine guns and armoured vehicles were deployed to the streets, along with armed police, to protect both travellers and the volunteer train crews.

Drama & Troops On The Streets

There were a number of dramatic moments, including bombings of GNR bus depots, a bus hijacking in Dublin and a policeman killed in Belfast.   No more than 24 hours after the dispute had begun, there was an “incident” on the Dublin to Belfast main line, just south of Dundalk, where – as the media reported – “…the tearing up of railway lines (which) caused a fatal train crash near the border….” .

Belfast Newsletter 8 February 1933, page 8, 1 of 2 copy

Photo Courtesy of the Belfast Newsletter

This was an exceedingly bitter dispute, with the Great Northern Railway at its centre. The company operated in both the North and the South of Ireland, with its main works in Dundalk, south of the recently established border. A reported “explosion” on the railway near Dundalk resulted in police raiding the houses of railwaymen, as well as those of “Revolutionary Groups”.

Splits and Bad Resolutions

To say there was a difference of opinion with the railwaymen’s trade union representatives, and the growing “rank and file” movements in particular would be an understatement. The railwaymen’s own union leaders ‘hinted’ at possible use of The Trades Disputes Act 1906, along with suggestions about using the unemployed on Outdoor Relief as volunteers to prevent wider disruption to economic activity.

During February with no progress, the positions became entrenched. For the Unions’ part, they would not re-open negotiations until the 10% cut was taken off the table – but this demand came through the railway branches, and Central Strike Committee – not the Unions’ Executive Committees.

In the “Railway Vigilant” for February 1933 a call for financial support was made, and collecting cards issued to ASLE&F and NUR branches across Ireland and Britain.

The end result however of all the effort put in by railwaymen across Ireland and in Britain was the imposition of the pay cuts. The Railway Vigilant for May 1933 published details of the ‘settlement’ reached:

  • “This Agreement, signed on April 6th, 1933, provides for all conciliation grades, exclusive of road transport passenger staff, a deduction from earnings (i.e., wages plus overtime, night duty, etc.) of 7 ½ per cent., and at the same time all holidays for the year 1933 to be taken without payment for same.”

In the life of this dispute, very little changed in the ‘establishment’ view of trade, order and economics, and the railwaymen with their unions really only managed to reduce the impact on wages – a wage reduction was still imposed – together with the temporary removal of the ‘guaranteed week’, and loss of paid holidays in 1933. But this was not the end of the matter, as the ‘agreement’ reached indicated in a reference in the Belfast Newsletter for 8th April that the railway companies may need further wage cuts, or other actions if their “financial position” did not improve.