Left Archive: Law (?) and Orders: The Belfast ‘Curfew’ of 3-5 July 1970, Central Citizens’ Defence Committee July 3, 2010Posted by Garibaldy in Central Citizens' Defence Committee, History, Irish Left Online Document Archive, Northern Ireland.
40 years ago today, at about 4.30pm, the RUC and British army raided 24 Balkan Street in the Falls, looking for arms. The incident was to spark what the United Irishman of August 1970 described as “the biggest military engagement since 1916 between units of the Irish Republican Army and British Crown forces”, and resulted in 3,000 British troops, backed by helicopters and armoured cars, placing an illegal curfew on around 60 streets in the lower Falls. The curfew lasted from 10pm on Friday July 3rd until 8am on Sunday morning, with a two hour break on the Saturday evening for people to buy essentials. Four men were killed, all of them by the British army, amid mass arrests and house searches. Three were shot dead, and one was deliberately run over. This document describes the deaths of Charles O’Neill, William Burns, Patrick Elliman, and Zbigniew Uglik. It also gives a detailed description of the hardships experienced by the civilian population as a result of the curfew itself, and as a result of the actions of the British troops, many of whom engaged in an orgy of destruction and looting. The British seized about 100 weapons, 25 lbs of explosives, 21,0000 rounds and some radio equipment and gas masks. In the weeks after the curfew, the Central Citizens’ Defence Committee conducted a survey of the residents within the area placed under curfew, and the pamphlet provides a invaluable insight into the experience of the local population. A sense of how intense the fighting was and the scale of the British army operation can be seen in its own statistics: its men fired 1,454 live rounds, and deployed 218 CS gas grenades and 1,355 gas canisters. Many of the latter were fired into the area from a large catapult attached to the back of an army jeep like a medieval siege engine. And no, I’m not making that up.
The Central Citizens’ Defence Committee was founded on August 16th 1969 on the initiative of Jim Sullivan, adjutant of the Belfast Command of the Irish Republican Army. Sullivan was its first Chair. It acted as the coordinating body for the various defence groups that had sprung up in the various areas in August 1969 and after. It rapidly expanded, and at one point, according to Paul Arthur, 95 delegates represented 75,000 people. The wide-ranging nature of the body can be seen in the fact that while Sullivan continued to play a leading role in it, it also included some of the local priests from St. Peter’s Cathedral and people connected to the Nationalist Party and to Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin, the Westminster and Stormont MPs for the area. It wasn’t a left organisation, but it included significant left-wing elements, and its account of the Falls curfew certainly deserves a place in our archive.
This document was produced in September 1970. It was written by Seán Óg Ó Fearghail, with a foreword from Mícheál Ó Dathlaoich (Michael Dolley, a Member of the Royal Irish Academy and lecturer at Queen’s). The British Army believed Ó Dathlaoich to be the real author. The British Army were concerned enough by it to rapidly produce a detailed response that was sent to media outlets. The document starts with a brief historical overview; gives a detailed account of the events that led to the curfew and the curfew itself (one, it must be said, that downplays the extent of the resistance to the British army); and the second part of the document is a breakdown of the result of the CCDC’s survey of the residents, which was conducted by teams of mainly students, with the curfewed areas being broken up into different zones, as explained in the document. Although in many respects, a largely factual and narrative account, it does have a clear analysis, and lays the blame for what happened squarely at the door of the British Army for its overreaction, and the document accuses the army of implementing a pre-planned strategy.
The historical overview describes the social, economic and living conditions within the area, and stresses the religiosity of the people, as well as the large number of ex-British servicemen in the area. The account is at pains to stress the respectability of the area, reflecting the extent to which the Catholic church and the local social elite had become involved in the CCDC. It also provides a quick description of the civil rights campaign, the outbreak of the Troubles, and the weekend before the curfew (June 27th/28th), when serious sectarian violence had led to six deaths in the Crumlin Road and the Short Strand, with the emerging Provisionals responsible for them all, including that of a Catholic accidentally shot dead while cooperating with the Provisionals in the Short Strand. As noted already, the account of the incidents that led to the curfew blames the British Army for not ignoring the hurling of a few stones, and instead choosing to respond with CS gas, and repeatedly failing to back away from confrontation instead of further provoking it. It also notes the recklessness of army actions that endangered civilians, but also describes the throwing of homemade hand grenades at the military by the Provisionals that escalated the situation, and which they admitted to the Irish Times of July 7th 1970 had been a mistake. It stresses the contempt with which both the hierarchy and the troops on the ground treated both the CCDC and elected politcians trying to bring things to a halt – Devlin was threatened with death by troops holding him – and the mistreatment of civilians, their homes, and their property. At the same time, however, there is a reluctance to smear the names of entire army units, and it goes out of its way in part II, the survey, to point out that many of the soldiers behaved well. Among the headings for Part II of the hardships faced by civilians are Shortage of Food, Loss of Liberty, Financial Hardship, Cruelty to Animals, and Brutality of Troops.
The Conclusion lays the blame for the Curfew squarely at the door of General Sir Ian Freeland, General Officer Commanding and Director of Operations for the British Army in Northern Ireland, and warns that the curfew may be seen by future historians as a significant step in the alienation of the non-unionist population. It also goes out of its way to point out that a formal curfew had been called, as the British had taken to denying this due to its illegality. It attacks the army for the deaths of the civilians, and its claims to have killed two snipers whose bodies were moved out of the area, while again downplaying the extent of the resistance. All in all, this is a superb insight into the curfew, and into how some important sections of public opinion felt about it.
Apart from the inherent interest of the document itself as a source, it is worth taking a minute to consider the wider significance of the curfew. In retrospect, we can see it as the first expression of a new and more hardline policy being introduced by the British military, the new Tory government (elected June 18th 1970) and the Stormont regime. The murders of the four civilians as a result of utterly reckless and dangerous firing by the military, and the false claims about killing snipers whose bodies have disappeared to justify the killing of innocent civilians are all too familiar, especially two weeks after the Saville report was published. Having said that, the claims that from the curfew on, the non-unionist population considered itself at war with the British are not accurate either.
There has been a lot of myth making about the curfew, and it has become the centre of disputes over what happened and how it is remembered. The area was a stronghold of the IRA, with the Provisionals numbering only about 12 to perhaps 150 members of the IRA, the Auxiliaries and the Fianna. The IRA (Official) version has always been that the Provisionals were ordered to throw the nail bombs at the soldiers, and then withdraw from the area to leave the IRA to fight it out with the British. A small number of Provisionals did stay behind – possibly against orders, as the Irish Times interview alluded to above says that the Provisionals as an organisation were not active in the area – including Brendan Hughes, who gave several accounts of his activities before his death. By his own account in Voices from the Grave, the Provisionals were involved in a five or six minute gun battle before hunkering down and sitting it out. The fighting lasted from around 8pm until 3 or 4am. The Provisionals have also always stressed the part played by their members in the march of the women that is claimed to have broken the curfew on the Sunday. For the 35th anniversary, the Provisionals produced a DVD about the curfew, and for the 40th, they centred a commemoration around the march of the women. As is clear from the CCDC document, the curfew was already finished, although that would not have been known to those marching.
The reason for the Provisional stress on the march was because they could not reasonably claim the credit for the fighting, although it seems that in recent years, since the DVD at least, there has been an attempt to annexe the military resistance to their cause, just as several members of the IRA (Official) killed as late as 1972 now appear on the Provisional roll of honour. The list of stories covered for the first edition of the new monthly An Phoblacht includes the following. “The Falls Curfew, the Defence of Ardoyne and the Battle of St Matthews”, which suggests an attempt to portray the curfew as part of a seamless whole in which the Provisionals stepped forward as the defenders of the oppressed catholic community, although I haven’t read the paper, and so could be wrong there, and will be happy to be corrected.
The IRA and Republican Clubs were quite clear in claiming credit for the fighting, and I think it is fair to say that the curfew is remembered as the set-piece battle of the IRA in its Belfast heartland, involving as it did large numbers of people and many important figures in the history and development of The Workers’ Party, including the likes of Jim Sullivan, Liam McMillen, and Joe McCann. And for the fortieth anniversary, a large group of Workers’ Party members who were involved in the curfew as members of D Company have produced a pamphlet (called The Story of the Falls Curfew) putting down their experience and analysis of the curfew, and combatting what they see as the attempts by others to write them out of the story of the curfew, or to misrepresent their motives for taking the actions they did. This is not just the Provisionals, but also those journalists and historians who have claimed they felt they had something to prove in competition with the Provisionals after the events of the previous weekend. They point out that a desire to defend their area was not the same as a desire to be seeing as the defenders of the Catholics. The pamphlet includes an account of another event alluded to by Brendan Hughes in Voices from the Grave, when IRA volunteers pulled guns to prevent a Catholic sectarian mob, of which Hughes was a member, burning Protestant homes as a way of stressing the differences between the two.
The media coverage of the 40th anniversary has reflected these ongoing issues about historical memory. Alan Murray, in the Belfast Telegraph on June 23rd, described the ongoing sense of injustice felt by the families of two Protestant men shot dead by the Provisionals during the violence at the Short Strand on 27th June. They feel that their relatives were innocent men, shot dead by sectarian gunmen, and that every year their memory is smeared to hide the truth. The Andersonstown News has for its past few editions been running stories about the curfew, including interviews with Workers’ Party members who were active that night and with some of those involved in the women’s march, detailing how they “broke” the curfew. Another story with another woman talks about the curfew being over before the march. A few of these stories have been among the small number from each edition that get posted on the website, and likewise some of the texts discussing them have been published online too. It’s interesting to note what stories and texts from the printed editions have been left offline. You can still find British soldiers who believe that the bodies of two snipers were successfully hidden, and that the shooting was by and large justified. The curfew remains a very good example of how during the Troubles, competing versions of history were fostered for political reasons, and how myths can take hold and become unshakeable truth in popular memory.