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On the 50th anniversary of the Falls Curfew

Liam McAnoy looks back on the largest single engagement between armed Irish republicans and the British Army since 1916 and on the women who broke the Falls Curfew.

July 3rd 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the Falls Curfew, the largest single engagement between armed Irish republicans and the British Army since 1916. During the curfew, the British Army deployed 2,500 troops from the Royal Scots, the Black Watch, the Life Guards, the Devon and Dorset Regiment, the Gloucestershire and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Royal Regiment, against small IRA and Na Fianna Éireann units on the Falls Road. The ending was a foregone conclusion. The excuse for this pre-planned attack was a search for weapons in Sean Maguire’s home; as the search came to an end, young men attacked the British soldiers with stones and petrol bombs on Albert Street.

As a member of Na Fianna Éireann I watched as the British Army responded with a salvo of CS gas and baton charges. Paddy Corrigan was one of the first to be arrested. The British fired thousands of rounds of live ammunition and 1,600 canisters of gas. A ‘grantapault’ was used from Land Rovers to launch salvos of 10 inch CS gas canisters into the area; many went through the roofs of houses, gassing women and children. I witnessed similar canisters of CR gas dropped from helicopters on prisoners in Long Kesh in 1974.  A soldier later interviewed recalled: “The Falls was saturated with CS gas. Children were coughing and crying, I remember the kids, the gas affected everyone but children especially”.

As the numbers of British troops mounted on the Falls Road, a few Provisionals threw blast bombs at soldiers in Raglan Street and then withdrew from the area. The Provisionals, as an organisation, were not active in the fighting. Brendan Hughes, in his own account in Voices from the Grave, said ‘the Provisionals were involved in a five or six minute gun battle before hunkering down and sitting it out’.  Buses were hijacked and made into burning barricades by Joe Curley and Toby Shannon, both republican activists. Local people also barricaded streets to keep the soldiers out. Billy McKee later confided in Sean Mateer, a veteran republican, that he had hoped the British Army would wipe out the IRA (Officials) in the Falls and thereby leave the Provisionals as the only opposition to the British.  This deepened the enmity between the IRA and the Provisionals, an enmity which has lasted for generations, and continues to this day. The IRA accused the Provisionals of ensuring that the British would invade the area in their search for the bombers.

Billy McMillen was the Belfast IRA Commander in charge of republican fighters during the curfew. McMillen had been the Republican candidate in the 1964 elections, when his Divis Street election office was attacked by the RUC and the Irish tricolour stolen.

Knowing the troops would launch a bigger raid, McMillen, together with his Adjutant, Jim Sullivan, instructed volunteers from Cumann na mBan to remove a large quantity of arms from the area. This was put into operation by Billy Sullivan and Oliver Quinn, commanding D company, the IRA unit in the Falls area. The volunteers also realised that they would have to fight and prepared to confront the troops. An IRA source later said, “The way we looked at it, we were not going to put up our hands and let them take our weapons. We didn’t want confrontation, but we wouldn’t surrender”. Many women from the Cumann na mBan, including Margaret McCorry and Margaret Green, Eilish and Phyliss Mateer and Mary Hughes, began removing weapons to Divis Flats, Clonard, and Beechmount. These same women marched with others down the Falls to break the curfew on Sunday morning.

At approximately 6pm as troops moved in from the main road, a squad of volunteers, led by Paddy McCann and Bap O’Neill opened fire at Balaclava Street. Jimmy Wylie and other volunteers took up positions on the roof of Raglan Street and Getty Street schools, this offered good sniping points down and up Leeson Street and down Raglan Street and Cyprus Street, where troops were massing. Volunteers Danny O’Neill, Joe McCann and James Corrigan moved out with weapons from the back of Michael Dwyer’s GAA club, including one Bren gun. They took up positions at Varna Street and Grosvenor Place. Danny was wounded on Saturday morning. Later, in the Dwyer’s, Billy Mc Millen, Andy McAnoy, and Una O’Neill were captured in possession of a large quantity of arms. Myself, together with Francie Scott and Joe Hughes from the Fianna were deployed to Panton Street; I was run over by a Ferret scout car during the gun battle on Saturday morning and arrested.  

Many of the fighters were younger members of Na Fianna Éireann. They included Bimbo Robb and Sam Smith who were positioned on top of Garvey’s roof at Grosvenor Place. Both were captured with automatic weapons on the Saturday morning and were ill-treated. Bimbo possibly witnessed the murder of Paddy Elliman as he heard two high velocity shots and overheard a soldier saying, ‘I just shot a blast bomber’. Paddy was shot as he smoked a cigarette. Robert Mateer and Jim Pollock were positioned in Osman Street as British snipers fired from the Divis Flats; they took refuge in Jim’s mother in law’s house. 

Although the Falls remained sealed off, by midday on Sunday 5th July women had begun to gather at various points to march down to the Falls area. The British knew that most of the armaments had been moved before the cordon was fully effective. The Curfew was broken when 3,000 women of all shades of political opinion and none, marched to the British lines with food and groceries for the people. The unprepared soldiers tried to hold back the crowd at first, using batons at first, they pushed on without fear.

By the time the battle was over, the troops had captured 52 pistols, 38 rifles, 8 sub machine guns and 14 shotguns, along with 100 home-made grenades, 250 pounds of explosives and 21,000 rounds of ammunition. 337 people were arrested and 80 were wounded, with 18 British soldiers wounded.

The curfew created a sea change in many ways. Whatever positive impact the arrival of British troops might have had on the streets of Belfast and Derry in 1969, the sheer brutality of the British Army during the curfew sowed the seeds for decades of violence with the Provisionals.  Nationalists had initially perceived the British Army as protecting them from the RUC and Unionist gangs. The curfew alienated these people, who had never been republicans but who now gave support to the Provisionals.

The treatment of the community also increased the view that Northern Ireland could not be reformed, undermining the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). NICRA was later dealt a fatal blow by the massacre on Bloody Sunday in Derry, which drove the civil rights movement off the streets of Northern Ireland. It also set back the work of Billy McMillen and other republicans who, throughout the 1960s had developed and renewed the republican movement’s understanding that physical force politics had failed to establish an Irish Republic in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. The Provisionals’ campaign also failed to achieve that objective. Today Sinn Féin administer Northern Ireland as part of a partitionist state under British rule.

The brutality also displayed a colonial mentality by the British, viewing Northern Ireland as another field for the similar operations it had run in Malaya, Kenya, Aden and Cyprus and identifying Catholics as a suspect population, which required army camps positioned at the very heart of their communities in order to maintain control. Hence, during internment, or Operation Demetrius as it was called by the British, land reserved for local businesses, GAA pitches and local factories were commandeered and occupied by the British Army. Similar tactics were used by the Americans in Vietnam during their occupation.

Four civilians were killed by the British Army during the Falls Curfew. These were Charles O’Neill, William Burns and Patrick Elliman, all local men, and Zbigniew Uglik, a 23-year-old Polish man who lived in England. None had any connection with Irish Republicans. It was the first ‘massacre’ of Irish civilians in Northern Ireland in ‘The Troubles’.

The fact that the RUC made no real attempt to investigate the killings and woundings, led directly to the massacres in Ballymurphy in August 1971 when eleven civilians were murdered, Springhill in 1972 when five civilians were murdered, and Derry in 1972 when fourteen civilians were murdered. The precedent for murder was set. Just a year previously the RUC had machine gunned our community, killing people in consort with Unionist mobs. No police were charged on that occasion.

Not one soldier has served an hour in prison for any of these murders. The British Army effectively became immune from prosecution for the murder of Irish civilians, an immunity they still seek to maintain today by claiming that any investigations or prosecutions for their crimes constitute a witch-hunt.

A massacre can be defined as ‘killing multiple victims, especially when perpetrated by an army against unarmed civilians’. The word is a French term for “butchery” or “carnage” – that is what happened to our community between the 3rd – 5th July 1970.  We know because we were there, we lived, and we fought that experience.  

The Falls Curfew marked a political watershed in Northern Ireland. The early view of the conflict taken by the British, as a conflict between an entrenched and discriminatory majority and an oppressed minority, led to an underestimation of the depth of the ‘legitimacy crisis’ within Unionism generally. The British persisted with a policy that achieved the worst of both worlds, a Unionist regime incapable of stabilising itself and an increasingly alienated Catholic population that witnessed massacres in their communities, a military reaction force that murdered Catholics with seized IRA weapons, internment of almost twenty thousand people, army occupation of local communities, a shoot to kill policy, and supergrass trials.

Operation Banner, the British Army operation in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 2007, was the longest continuous deployment in British military history. According to the Ministry of Defence, 1,441 serving British military personnel died during Operation Banner, 722 of whom were killed in paramilitary attacks, and 719 of whom died as a result of other causes. The British military killed 307 people during the operation, 51% of whom were civilians and 42% of whom were allegedly members of republican paramilitaries.

The British and Unionist politicians, from the Falls Curfew onwards, were the best recruiting agents for the Provisional IRA. The Provisionals killed five Protestants in North Belfast and in Ballymacarrett over the weekend of the 27th and 28th of June 1970 and this no doubt greatly influenced the decision to impose the curfew in the Falls area. Unionist politicians clamoured for an invasion of the Falls Road.  It would be surprising if the hostile Unionist reaction to the Army’s handling of events during that weekend in June did not influence General Freeland’s reactions to impose the curfew and brutalise the local community.  When the Falls was subdued and the streets emptied of fighters, the British Army attempted to humiliate the people further by driving two Ulster Unionist Party government ministers, John Brooke and William Long, through the area in armoured vehicles.  

The IRA, Na Fianna, the Republican Clubs and local people were quite right to claim credit for their actions. It is clear that the curfew was a set-piece battle forced on the IRA in its Belfast heartland, involving many key figures in the history and development of the Republican Movement including Jim Sullivan, Billy McMillen, Joe McCann and many others. Would history have been different if the curfew had not happened?

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