Betty Sinclair was born into a church of Ireland, working-class family in Hooker Street, the Ardoyne area of Belfast. Her father was a worker in the Harland and Wolff shipyard and a “Walkerist” (pro-unionist) 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. She lived for a short period of time with her aunt in Leeds but returned to Belfast.
Little is known about Betty’s personal life, but during an interview with Lynda Walker in 1980, she spoke about her marriage to John Lyttle, who was not supportive of Betty being active in politics. She gave birth to twins who died shortly after childbirth. She left her husband and went back to the family home. In the interview, it is clear that she sees this as a very unhappy period of time in her life.
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, and became a full time worker for them. In 1931, she began to attend meetings of the Revolutionary Workers’ Group (forerunner of the CPI) and in 1932, she became a member. During 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. These huge, non-sectarian workers’ demonstrations shook the Unionist regime to its foundations. In response, demonstrations were banned and a curfew was declared. Two demonstrators were shot dead by the British army and another demonstrator, who was arrested and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment, died later from mistreatment. These were the first large-scale anti-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, Betty Sinclair attended the Lenin School in Moscow. In 1941, she was imprisoned for publishing a Sinn Fein article in the Communist Party paper Red Hand. The article was pro-Fascist, arguing that if Hitler won the war it would be to the benefit of Ireland and would help achieve a United Ireland. Although the Communist Party countered this with another article, as part editor of the Red Hand Betty was held responsible. She opposed the anti-fascist war in Spain and also campaigned for Paul Robeson to get his passport back; in 1958, she met Robeson when he came to Belfast as part of a worldwide tour.
In the 1945 election for the Northern Ireland Parliament, Sinclair 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. However, along with three other members of the NICRA executive, she resigned from this position in 1969, believing that the organisation had been compromised by ultra-leftists. During the 1970s, she lived in Prague as the Irish representative on the international editorial board of World Marxist Review. She continued to play an active role in the Belfast and District Trade Council and in 1971 met with Joyce McCartan and Lynda Walker, in the Trade Council Office on Donegal Street, to help them draw up a petition in opposition to the withdrawal of school milk. In 1981, shortly before she died, she organised the centenary events for the Belfast Trades Council, held in Belfast City Hall. She died in 1981 after a fire in her flat in east Belfast. [LW]