As part of International Women’s Day 2012 it was decided to rename temporarily some streets in Belfast after women who had made their mark on the city. Donegall Street was named after Betty Sinclair. The Sign is on the side of the new Premier Inn Hotel.
Elizabeth “Betty” Sinclair was born into a working-class family in the Ardoyne area of Belfast. Her father was a worker in the Harland and Wolff shipyard and a “Walkerist” (pro-union) socialist; her mother was a reeler in Ewart’s mill. After leaving school at the age of fifteen she became a millworker alongside her mother. As an active trade unionist she was elected on behalf of her union to the Belfast and District Trades Union Council, of which she was secretary from 1947 to 1975.
In 1931 she began to attend meetings of the Revolutionary Workers’ Group (forerunner of the Communist Party of Ireland CPI) and in 1932 she became a member. The same year she played an active part in the leadership of the Outdoor Relief (unemployment assistance) strike and the demonstrations by tens of thousands of unemployed workers. Huge non-sectarian workers’ demonstrations shook the Unionist regime to its foundations. Demonstrations were banned and a curfew was declared. Two demonstrators were shot dead by the British army; another demonstrator who was arrested and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment died later from his mistreatment. These were the first large-scale non-sectarian political demonstrations in the North, and the last until the advent of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in the 1960s (in which Betty Sinclair was also to play a leading part). Some of the strikers’ demands were met, after which the Stormont regime intensified its promotion of sectarian division.
From 1933 to 1935 she attended the Lenin School in Moscow. In 1940 she was arrested after the CPI paper Unity published an article allegedly sympathetic to the IRA, and she was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment. The same year she became a full-time party worker in Belfast. In the 1945 election for the Northern Ireland Parliament she stood as a CPI candidate and received 4,000 votes.
She was a founder-member of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in 1967 and its first chairperson but resigned from this position in 1969 after the organisation had been compromised by ultra-leftists and pushed into provocations that would result in further sectarian divisions.
After 1969 she travelled throughout eastern Europe and in the 1970s lived in Prague as the Irish representative on the international editorial board of World Marxist Review. She died in 1981 after a fire in her flat in east Belfast.
” We Shall Overcome” became the anthem of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland. It was first sung at the end of the initial Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association march from Coalisland to Dungannon, County Tyrone on Saturday 24 August 1968. The person to orchestrated and lead the march in singing of this song was Betty Sinclair.