|Part of the Troubles and Operation Banner|
A mural depicting the march that broke through the curfew
|Official IRA||British Army|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Jim Sullivan||Sir Ian Freeland|
|80 – 90 volunteers||3000 soldiers|
|Casualties and losses|
|4 civilians killed by British Army
60 civilians injured
The Falls Curfew (also called the Battle of the Falls or the Rape of the Lower Falls) was a British Army operation during 3–5 July 1970 in the Falls district of Belfast, Northern Ireland. The operation began as a search for weapons in the staunchly Irish nationalist district. As the search ended, local youths attacked the British soldiers with stones and petrol bombs and the soldiers responded with CS gas. This quickly developed into gun battles between British soldiers and the Official Irish Republican Army. Four hours after the violence began, the British commander sealed off the area and imposed a curfew, which would last 36 hours. During that time, the British Army carried out house-to-house searches for weapons, occasionally coming under attack from the Official IRA. The searches involved much destruction and a large amount of CS gas was fired into the area. On 5 July, the curfew was brought to an end when 3,000 women and children from Andersonstown marched into the curfew zone with food and groceries for the locals.
During the operation, four civilians were killed by the British Army, at least 75 people were wounded (including 15 soldiers) and 337 people were arrested. A large number of weapons and ammunition was also captured. The Falls Curfew deeply alienated Belfast's Irish nationalist and Catholic population from the British Army and boosted support for the IRA.
A week before the Falls Curfew, on Saturday 27 June 1970, Belfast experienced severe rioting after an Orange Order parade in the north of the city. During that evening, republicans claim that groups of loyalist rioters began to make incursions into the Catholic and Irish nationalist Short Strand enclave in east Belfast. Loyalists claim that the violence was started by the Catholics, alleging that Orangemen and supporters came under attack on Newtownards Road when returning from a parade.
Members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army took up sniping positions in the grounds of St Matthew's Catholic Church and engaged in a prolonged gun battle with loyalist gunmen. Across Belfast seven people were killed, of whom five were Protestants and one was a Catholic shot by the Provisional IRA. Meanwhile, the Official Irish Republican Army arranged for a large number of weapons to be brought into the mainly nationalist and Catholic Lower Falls area for distribution. The area was a stronghold of the Official IRA.
Initial weapons search
In response to the violence, the following weekend the British government sent troops from the Black Watch and Life Guards regiments into the Lower Falls area to recover republican weapons. The search began at about 3pm on Friday 3 July, under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Ian Freeland. An informer had tipped them off that they would find an arms dump belonging to the Official IRA in a house on Balkan Street. A column of five or six armoured vehicles arrived at the house and sealed off the street. The search uncovered 19 weapons.
Gun battles and rioting
As the armoured vehicles left the area, a small crowd of youths on Raglan Street pelted them with stones. The troops replied by launching CS gas at the crowd. The youths continued to throw stones and the soldiers responded with more CS gas. The stone-throwing escalated into a full-scale riot and a number of streets were hastily barricaded to prevent the British soldiers from entering. Jim Sullivan, the local Official IRA commander, feared that the troops would launch a bigger raid and instructed his men to move weapons out of the area. At about 6pm, Provisional IRA members attacked the troops with improvised hand grenades. A number of soldiers suffered leg injuries. As more troops were sent into the area, "the Officials realized that they would have to fight", and Sullivan ordered his men to confront the troops. An Official IRA source later said: "The way we looked at it, we were not going to put up our hands and let them take the weaponry. We didn't want the confrontation, but we couldn't surrender". According to one source, 60–70 Official IRA volunteers were involved. According to another, 80–90 were involved. Each was armed with a rifle and at least one revolver. They exchanged fire with the troops, who fired over 1,500 rounds in the incident. Hundreds of local youths also pelted the troops with stones and petrol bombs. Journalist Simon Winchester later wrote:
To anyone who experienced the battle, it was perfectly obvious that hundreds and hundreds of bullets were being fired by both sides – and yet the Army had the gall, when asked by reporters later in the weekend, to say that its soldiers fired only 15 shots in sum.
The Army also continued firing CS gas. Catapults were used to launch heavy CS gas canisters into the area and some went through the roofs of a few houses. According to the Central Citizens' Defence Committee, even streets where there had been no disorder "received salvo after salvo". The soldiers fired 1,600 canisters of CS gas during the operation, which was considered to be excessive in such a small area. Journalist Peter Taylor describes the effect of the CS gas on the densely populated area:
The clouds of choking and suffocating gas drifted up the narrow alleyways and back streets of the warren that is the Lower Falls. The gas got everywhere, in through windows, under doors and into the residents' eyes, noses, throats and lungs.
A soldier later interviewed by Taylor recalled: "The place was still saturated with CS gas. Children were coughing, I remember. I'm talking now about the toddlers, kids of three, four, five. It affected everyone but children especially". There were allegations that some soldiers fired CS gas canisters through the windows of houses while residents were still inside. Hundreds of women and children, along with the sick and elderly, began evacuating the area.
At 10pm on Friday 3 July, four hours after the violence began, Freeland ordered that the area be put under an indefinite curfew and that anyone on the streets be arrested. British soldiers announced the curfew through loudspeakers on the ground and in helicopters. The boundaries of the official curfew zone were the Falls Road in the west and north, Albert Street and Cullingtree Road in the east, and Grosvenor Road in the south. However, during the curfew the zone was extended in the southwest as far as Dunmore Street. There were about 3,000 homes inside the curfew zone. After the curfew began, up to 3,000 soldiers began moving into the area supported by armoured vehicles and helicopters. They also began sealing-off the curfew zone with barbed wire.
Shooting and rioting continued for a number of hours after the curfew began. Directly after the curfew was imposed, three soldiers were shot and wounded by Official IRA volunteers in Omar Street. The Provisional IRA pulled out, allegedly because it believed the clash would end badly and it would lose the few weapons it had. The last shots were fired at dawn on Saturday 4 July.
After sealing off the curfew zone, the Army began a house-to-house search for weapons under the cover of CS gas. At least 1,000 houses were searched. Any journalists who remained inside the curfew zone were arrested by the Army. It is claimed that, because the media was unable to watch their activities, the soldiers behaved "with reckless abandon". Hundreds of houses were forcibly searched for weapons. There were scores of complaints of soldiers hitting, threatening, insulting and humiliating residents. Pubs and businesses were also searched and it is claimed that several of them were looted by the soldiers. According to Mallie and Bishop's account: "The soldiers behaved with a new harshness ... axeing down doors, ripping up floorboards, disembowelling chairs, sofas, beds, and smashing the garish plaster statues of the Madonna [...] which adorned the tiny front parlours".
At a Northern Ireland Cabinet meeting on 7 July, it was said that "little structural damage had been reported, apart from the pulling up of floorboards". The ministers concluded that there was a "smear campaign" being mounted against the British Army. The British Minister of State for defence, Lord Balniel, defended the actions of the soldiers, stating: "I am deeply impressed by the impartial way they are carrying out an extremely difficult task".
At 5pm on Saturday, the Army announced by loudspeaker that people could leave their homes for two hours to get vital supplies. However, nobody was allowed to leave or enter the curfew zone. During this time, the local Member of Parliament, Paddy Devlin, was arrested by the Army while out talking to his constituents.
End of the curfew
Although the area remained sealed-off, by midday on Sunday 5 July there was a perception among locals that the operation had been abandoned. According to Hanley and Millar, "the British knew that most of the 'more attractive' armaments had been spirited away 'before the cordon was fully effective'". The curfew was broken on Sunday, when 3,000 women and children from the nationalist Andersonstown area marched to the British lines with food and other groceries for the people there. The unprepared soldiers tried to hold back the crowd at first, but eventually allowed it to pass through.
By the time the search was over, the troops had captured about 100 firearms, 100 home made grenades, 250 pounds of explosives and 21,000 rounds of ammunition. Among the firearms were 52 pistols, 35 rifles, 6 machine guns and 14 shotguns. Almost all of this material belonged to the Official IRA.
It was later reported that while the lower Falls was under curfew and the streets emptied of people, the Army had driven two Unionist ministers, John Brooke and William Long, through the area in armoured vehicles. This enraged nationalists in Northern Ireland, who perceived the gesture as a symbol of unionist triumphalism over an area cowed by British military force.
The British Army killed four civilians during the operation:
- Charles O'Neill, a 36-year-old Catholic civilian, died on 3 July after being knocked down by a British Saracen APC on the Falls Road during the initial rioting. According to eyewitnesses, he walked out on to the road and signalled the APCs to stop, but the lead vehicle sped up and "deliberately" ran him down. One eyewitness said that soldiers prodded O'Neill in the ribs and that one of them remarked: "Move on you Irish bastard – there are not enough of you dead". O'Neill was an invalided ex-serviceman.
- Thomas Burns, a 54-year-old Catholic civilian, was shot dead at the front door of his home on the Falls Road on 3 July. He had just finished chatting to a neighbour when he was shot in the chest. The shooting took place at about 8:20pm, almost two hours before the curfew was announced.
- Patrick Elliman, a 62-year-old Catholic civilian, was shot in the head on Marchioness Street on the night of 3 July and died of his wounds on 10 July. He had walked to the end of the street in his night clothes "for a breath of fresh air". Elliman was taken away in an ambulance. However, it was searched and re-routed by the Army, taking thirty minutes to cover the few hundred yards to the Royal Victoria Hospital. That night, British soldiers broke into Elliman's home and quartered themselves there for the night.
- Zbigniew Uglik, a 23-year-old visitor from England, was shot dead at the rear of a house on Albert Street on 4 July. He was an amateur photographer and was allegedly trying to take photographs when he was shot.
Another 60 civilians suffered gunshot wounds, as did 15 soldiers, 3 more of whom were wounded by stones or petrol bombs. A total of 337 people, including Official IRA leader Billy McMillen were also arrested.
The Falls Curfew had two major results. The first was that it deeply alienated Belfast's Irish nationalist and Catholic population from the Army. Historian Richard English suggests that the Falls Curfew was "arguably decisive in terms of worsening the relationship between the British Army and the Catholic working class". Previously, many of them had seen the Army as a neutral force in the city to keep order between Catholics and Protestants. However, the events of the Falls Curfew gave credence to the Irish republican argument that the British Army was a hostile colonial army of occupation. According to Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams, "Thousands of people who had never been republicans now gave their active support to the IRA; others, who had never had any time for physical force now regarded it as a practical necessity".
The second main result was a deepening of the enmity between the two factions of the Irish Republican Army, the Official IRA and the Provisional IRA, who had parted ways in December 1969. The Officials blamed the Provisionals for starting the confrontation with troops and then leaving them to fight alone against overwhelming odds, resulting in the loss of much of their weaponry. Over the following year, the two factions carried out many shootings and beatings of each other's members. A truce was eventually agreed between them to prevent further bloodshed after the Officials assassinated a young Provisional named Charlie Hughes. Hughes was the commander of the Provisional's unit in the lower Falls and had taken part in some of the fighting during the Falls Curfew.
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