Tommy Geehan was a Catholic textile worker who became the communist leader of the successful agitation that united both Protestants and Catholics against cuts in the outdoor relief in Belfast in 1932 and secured the nickname of "Molotov".
Geehan began his political life as a member of the Belfast Independent Labour Party (established in 1893) he became the Secretary of the Court Ward Labour Party, the “most virile and advanced of our locals”. Belfast ILP even had its own “Socialist Pipe band”. He wrote regularly for the ILP Northern Ireland journal the “Labour Opposition” (1925-1926), sometimes under his nom de guerre “plebeian”. Geehan was involved in 100,000 pennies campaign to build a new Labour hall, the original ILP hall being burnt down in 1920. The contact address for Geehan during this period was 15 Tyrone Street, Belfast.
In late 1925 he left for Canada, the report in Labour Opposition states “Tommy was a hard and uncomplaining worker and it was under his secretaryship that the division made its great forward drive”. Geehan was always very much on the left wing of the ILP. A new life in Canada did not seem to work out for Geehan and he returned to Belfast in mid 1926.
Geehan became closely associated with Roddy Connolly’s Workers Party of Ireland (established in 1926) and left the NILP in 1929 to join the Belfast Workers Group, the Belfast section of the Communist Revolutionary Workers Group.
By 1930 Northern Ireland had the highest rate of unemployment of the three states of the United Kingdom. In the Workers’ Voice of 23 July 1932, Geehan explained how he saw the way forward. He urged that a: `United Front must be organised by the rank and file workers themselves and the struggle for the abolition of the means test, for adequate relief for all unemployed workers, and against any further wage cuts, must be carried through by the rank and file of the Trade Unions, Labour Parties, the unemployed and those in receipt of outdoor relief. Steps should be taken immediately by the Rank and File Committees in the unions, the Unemployed Workers Committees, and the Revolutionary Workers Groups to organise a meeting of all militant workers. From this meeting a representative committee should be formed that could map out the launching of a wide-spread campaign against the Government and the whole Northern capitalist class.’
Following this, on the 25th July 1932, the Belfast Relief Workers’ Committee was established. The next month on 18 August 1932 it organised a conference of over 5,000. It demanded five concessions:
- The abolition of task work
- An increase in relief to pay one man 15/3d per week, his wife 8/- per week and
- 1/- per week for each child All relief work to be paid in cash
- Street improvements and other schemes to be paid at trade union rates
- Adequate outdoor allowance to all single men and women who are unemployed and not in receipt of unemployment benefit.
On 30 September, the 20,000 workers on relief went on strike. Marches in sympathy came from Coleraine and Derry to Belfast. Alarmed, the Government tried to split the strikers by an offer of increased rates to married relief workers; but this was rejected on a motion of Geehan, the Chairman of the Relief Workers’ Committee. On 5 October, 60,000 from all over Belfast – a huge number in proportion to the population – took to the streets in peaceful and good natured demonstration. They were led by bands, ironically playing popular tunes such as ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas’, and marched from the Labour Exchange to a torch-lit rally at the Custom House.
In absolute terror at the implications of this united working class action, the Stormont government banned further marches but a huge protest demonstration went ahead anyway, on 11 October. This time the establishment countenanced the use of the militarised Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), a force with direct links to the Orange Order. Inevitably, demonstrators clashed with them and the RUC withdrew but were sent in again, this time backed by British troops. The result was Bloody Sunday – 11 October 1932. On the Falls Road two protesters, Samuel Baxter and John Keenan, were shot dead by armed forces and barricades rose in defiance on both the Shankill and the Falls. That night, 11th October 1932, there were about 40,000 workers in Queens Square, Belfast. The main speakers were Tommy Geehan, Davey Scarborough, Jimmy Koter, Betty Sinclair, Sean Murray and Arthur Griffin.
The government now imposed a curfew. But the sight of massive and unified working class struggle saw the Belfast Board of Guardians announce big increases in benefits and changes to the rules. Concessions on some of the strikers’ demands were made, allowances were increased for families (though, not in all cases to the level demanded), single men in lodgings were given relief and the rate of relief was fixed as uniform (though still subject to the Means Test) for all Belfast. In addition, relief would continue indefinitely rather than ending after six months. Geehan accepted this as a magnificent victory
But retaliation was swift, British trade union leader Tom Mann who attempted to attend the funerals was summarily sent to prison. Arthur Griffin was arrested and got three months in jail. (He died later from his treatment.) Sean Murray (1898-1961) from Cushendall, Co Antrim (later Communist Party of Ireland General Secretary and Lenin College student) was expelled from Northern Ireland for seven years, for simply "being a communist”.
Later, Archie Magill estimated that sixty activists had joined the Communist Party as a result of the strike and in January 1933 Geehan beat Murtagh Morgan of the Northern Ireland Labour Party into third place in the contest for the Court Ward councillorship on Belfast Corporation (Council).
As a result of Geehan’s high profile Communist activities, he was later forced to leave Belfast when his home was burnt out by a loyalist mob. However he was still able to organise squatters successfully in the Belfast suburb of Glenard. Of the 144 families that were forced to move to Ardoyne a number were Republican and Communist organisers from throughout Belfast City, Geehan was one of the people who arrived at Ardoyne. By now popularly known as Molotov, he brought with him the experience of being an effective organiser.
At a meeting on the 7th August 1936 Geehan spoke on the need to support the Republican cause in Spain he also stated that “reduction in welfare payments would compel young men to join the army to escape starvation….While Lord Craigavon was cruising around the Mediterranean.” Geehan also spoke at length about the NCCL report into the use of “Northern Ireland Special Powers Act”, an Act which until 1966 was exclusively used against Republicans and Communists.
After the second world war the RCWG would became the Communist Party of Northern Ireland but its eternal glory will be the day a handful of Communists united the Shankhill and the Falls against the tyranny of Lord Craigavon’s Outdoor Relief and won.