The Falls Curfew (also called the "Battle of the Lower Falls" or "Rape of the Lower Falls") was a British Army operation during 3-5 July 1970 in an area along the Falls Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The operation started with a weapons search but developed into three days of rioting and gun battles between troops and the Official Irish Republican Army. Four civilians were killed by the Army, at least 75 were wounded (including 15 soldiers) and 300 republicans were arrested.
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 nationalist Short Strand enclave of east Belfast., although loyalists claim that the violence was begun by the republicans; allegedly when the returning Orangemen and supporters came under attack on Newtownards Road. 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. This was the most significant Provisional IRA operation to date. Across Belfast seven people were killed, of whom five were Protestants and one was a Roman Catholic shot by the 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, the following weekend, the British government sent troops from the Black Watch and Life Guards regiments into the area to recover paramilitary weapons. The search began at about 3pm on 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. The troops accordingly found 19 weapons at this location.
Gun battles and rioting:
Jim Sullivan, the local Official IRA commander, instructed his men not to attack the troops, for fear that the rest of their weapons would be found and seized. At about 6pm, however, the Provisional IRA attacked the troops with improvised hand grenades. At the same time, nationalist rioters also began to attack the soldiers. At this point, the Official IRA gave the order to defend the area and its members were armed with rifles and handguns.
Shortly after the violence began, Freeland announced a curfew and flooded the area with up to 3,000 soldiers supported by armoured vehicles and helicopters. The curfew zone, comprising about fifty streets, was sealed off with barbed wire. Helicopters equipped with loudspeakers hovered overhead, ordering the residents to stay indoors.
According to an Official IRA source quoted by journalists Eamonn Mallie and Patrick Bishop, the local Official IRA leadership reluctantly decided to take on the British troops once the scale of their incursion became clear. The source 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". The Provisional IRA pulled out, allegedly because it believed the clash would end badly and it would lose the few weapons it had.
The shooting, which had begun at about 6pm, continued into the night. On the morning of 4 July, when the troops entered the area, they were attacked by nationalist rioters and a sustained barrage of rifle and automatic fire from Official IRA volunteers. Over the next two days, there were continuous riots and gun battles in the area. Approximately 80-90 Official IRA volunteers 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.
After sealing off the curfew zone, the Army began a house-to-house search for weapons, under the cover of CS gas. The soldiers fired 1,600 canisters of CS gas, 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".
Any journalists who remained inside the curfew zone were arrested by the Army. Without the media to watch their activities, the soldiers were able to behave "with reckless aban-don". Hundreds of houses were broken into and some were ransacked in the search for arms. The soldiers also looted several pubs and businesses. 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, the Infant of Prague and Saint Bernadette which adorned the tiny front parlours.
At 5pm on Saturday, the Army announced by loudspeaker that people could come out for one hour to get vital supplies.
End of the curfew:
The curfew was broken at about 9am on Sunday 5 July, when over 1,000 women from the nationalist Andersonstown area marched to the lower Falls with food and other groceries for the people there.
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 a symbol of unionist triumphalism over an area cowed by British military force.
The Army killed four civilians during the curfew:
Charles O'Neill, a 36-year-old Catholic civilian, died on 3 July after being deliberately run over by a British Saracen APC on the Falls Road.
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.
Patrick Elliman, a 62-year-old Catholic civilian, was shot on Marchioness Street on 3 July and died of his wounds on 10 July.
Zbigniew Uglik, a 23-year-old visitor from England, was shot dead at the rear of a house on Albert Street on 4 July.
Another 60 civilians suffered gunshot wounds, as did 15 soldiers. About 300 people 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.