Falls Road election riots, 1938

Early in 1938 the northern government decided to introduce an oath for candidates standing for election. This stated that “I hereby declare that I intend, if elected as a member of the House of Commons of Northern Ireland, to take my seat in the said House after compliance with the law and the standing orders in that behalf.”


The oath effectively debarred republican candidates from standing since they refused to recognise the northern parliament. Despite its abstentionism, the IRA were active in electoral politics for much of the period up to 1938 and then, later, in supporting Sinn Féin from 1950 onwards. A similar oath had been in place since for several years for elections to the southern parliament (which effectively smoothed De Valera’s route to government since his republican opponents were effectively debarred from even standing in elections by their own abstentionist stance). The next election to the northern parliament was due on 9th February 1938.

In the aftermath of the oath, the Falls Road, in particular, saw running clashes between the RUC and republicans and riots over several nights before the election. This included clashes between republicans and supporters of the Nationalist Party, and, between supporters of the Northern Ireland Labour Party and Nationalist Party. Prior to the election the IRA had painted slogans on the gables of houses including “British Votes for British Slaves”, “Boycott the Elections”, “Make Byrne Arm” (Byrne was the Nationalist Party candidate in the Falls division), “Be British and Vote – Be Irish and Arm”. At least five people were injured and scores of windows broken in clashes.  Some streets witnessed running clashes between republicans and supporters of that Nationalist Party candidate, Alderman Richard Byrne (who had held the seat unopposed since 1929).

The night before the election, supporters of the Northern Ireland Labour Party candidate, John Glass, and followers of the Nationalist Party clashed in Clonard Street as a Nationalist Party procession was met by a hostile crowd. Four people were injured in the clashes which had occurred as the Nationalist Party procession literally bumped into a rally in support of John Glass. The Labour supporters reportedly had tricolours and booed the Nationalists, shouting “Up the Republic” and singing “A Soldier’s Song. They shouted down Richard Byrne when he tried to address them, haranguing him with “Get down you Catholic Orangeman!” and “What about the Republican Party!“. The latter suggests that the crowd also included republicans who were boycotting the election (otherwise, given that Glass had signed the required oath, the Labour supporters appear somewhat confused about their candidate’s status). The Nationalist Party supporters then started singing “A Nation Once Again” and scuffles broke out. The RUC then baton charged the crowd and the Labour and Nationalist Party supporters fought with each other and the RUC. Fireworks were also thrown at horses pulling a carriage that the Nationalists were using as a speaker’s platform.

The next day, when voting was to take place, Republicans and Nationalists clashed in Slate Street when the polling station there closed, with the Nationalists at one end singing “A Nation Once Again” and the republicans at the other end singing “A Soldier’s Song”, “Legion of the Rearguard” and “The Belfast Brigade”. The RUC then baton-charged the republicans which led to running battles in Sultan Street, Plevna Street and Raglan Street as the republicans used sticks and stones to defend themselves.

In the end Richard Byrne was returned with a majority of 667 votes over the Northern Ireland Labour Party’s John Glass (who was his only opponent). His majority had halved since his last actual election, against Billy McMullan in 1929.

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One response to “Falls Road election riots, 1938

  1. Pingback: Election headquarters, Barrack St, Belfast, 1925 | The Treason Felony Blog

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