Betty Sinclair

Radical activist and communist.

Betty Sinclair was born into a typical working class family in the Ardoyne area of Belfast. Her father was a sawyer in Harland and Wolff, and her mother a reeler in Ewarts Mill. Sinclair also joined the mill at 15 as a reeler, and experienced first hand the arbitrary nature of employers.

Sinclair started to attend meetings of the Revolutionary Workers Group in 1931, finding her own version of her fathers ‘Walkerist’ trade unionism. The RWG was the first openly communist organisation to be formed in Belfast, strictly following the policy of the Third International in setting ‘class against class’.

In the 1930s, the Northern Irish export economy was nearly destroyed by the great depression. Unemployment in December 1930 reached nearly 100,000 in Belfast alone, and infant mortality rose to 78 per 1000 births. Sinclair campaigned for relief to be given to the unemployed, and at 22, became a surprising figurehead in the male dominated world of politics. The 1932 Outdoor Relief Strike, uniting Catholics and Protestants, was a limited success, but the aftermath saw the impulse for change melt away.

Sinclair then spent two years studying in the Soviet Union where she formed a lifelong admiration of Soviet communism. She returned to Belfast in 1935 to find working class unity had dissolved in what she saw as a concerted campaign by the government:

The program [of 1935] was deliberately instigated to prevent developing unity among the people; because unemployment was still continuing so it was necessary to turn the minds of the supporters of unionism toward another enemy, and the enemy was the Roman Catholic people.

When the Northern Irish Civil Rights Association was formed in 1967, Sinclair became its chairperson. Strongly opposed to direct action, she was against the famous marches and protests that took place. She continued to support the labour movement’s broad based coalition, which was effectively pushed out by People’s Democracy more combative style. Sinclair realised that constant confrontation would force liberal unionists to become alienated from change, creating yet another division in society.

After her resignation in 1969, Betty Sinclair travelled throughout eastern Europe, and was a prominent figure in the historical study of the struggle of the working classes. She died in 1981 after a house fire in her east Belfast home. Betty Sinclair should be remembered as one of Northern Ireland’s few prominent woman politicians, and one of few fully fledged communists.