Falls Curfew

Falls Curfew

The Falls Curfew, also known as the Lower Falls Curfew or sometimes as the "Rape of the Lower Falls", was a British Army operation on the Falls Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland between 3 July and 5 July 1970. The operation started with an arms search but developed into three days of rioting and gun battles between British troops and Irish republican paramilitaries. Five people were killed in the incident and over 300 arrested.

Arms search

A week before the Falls curfew, on Saturday June 27, Belfast experienced severe rioting after an Orange Order parade in the north of the city. During the evening groups of Loyalist rioters began to make incursions into the Catholic Short Strand enclave of east Belfast. Catholics in the area believed that they were going to be burnt out of their homes and claimed that there were no British Army troops on the streets to protect the area. Members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army took up sniping positions in the grounds of St Mathew’s Catholic Church and engaged in a prolonged gun battle with the Loyalists. This was the most significant Provisional IRA operation to date. Across Belfast seven people were killed of whom five were Protestants shot by the IRA. In response, the following weekend, the British government sent British troops from the Black Watch and Life Guards regiments, under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Ian Freeland into predominantly Catholic Falls Road area of Belfast to recover paramilitary weapons.

An informer had tipped them off that they would find an arms dump belonging to the Official IRA in a house in Balkans Street in the Lower Falls, an area which was dominated at that time by the Official IRA. The troops accordingly found 19 weapons at this location. Jim Sullivan, the local OIRA commander instructed his men not to attack the British troops, for fear that the rest of their weapons would be discovered and seized. However, the rival Provisional IRA did attack the British troops with improvised hand grenades. In response the British announced a curfew and flooded the area with up to 3,000 soldiers, supported by armoured vehicles and helicopters.

Gun battles and rioting

According to an Official IRA source quoted by journalists Eamonn Mallie and Patrick Bishop, the local OIRA leadership reluctantly decided to take on the British troops once the scale of their incursion became clear, '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' [Mallie, Bishop, the Provisional IRA (1988), p.159]

On the morning of June 4, when the British troops entered the area, they were met with rioting and a sustained barrage of rifle and automatic fire from Official IRA members. At this point, Freeland, the British commander, ordered all the area's residents to stay indoors and had his soldiers conduct a house to house search for arms. Troops cordoned off the area, comprising of around fifty streets, with barbed wire. Helicopters equipped with loudpeakers hovered overhead, ordering the residents to stay indoors.

Over the next two days, there were continuous riots and gun battles in the area. Approximately 80-90 Official IRA members (volunteers) exchanged fire with the British troops, who fired in excess of 1,500 rounds at the republicans. Hundreds of local youths also pelted the troops with stones and petrol bombs. Four civilians were shot dead in the firing and another was killed after being run over by a British Saracen armoured car. Another 60 civilians suffered gun shot wounds, as did 15 soldiers. About 300 people were also arrested in the fighting.

Under the cover of CS gas (1,600 canisters of which were fired by the British troops), the Army conducted an aggressive search for weapons.

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. [Peter Taylor "Provos The IRA & Sinn Féin" p. 79] A British 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'. [Taylor, p.81]

Houses were broken into and in some cases ransacked in the search for arms. 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' [Mallie, Bishop, Provisional IRA, p.159] . By the time the search was over, the troops had captured 35 rifles, 6 machine guns, 14 shotguns, 100 home made grenades, 250 pounds of explosives, 21,000 rounds of ammunition and 8 two way radio sets. Almost all of this material belonged to the Official IRA [Mallie, Bishop, Provisional IRA, p.160] .

The fighting spread to the rest of Belfast and there were shooting incidents and rioting in Ardoyne, the upper Falls, the Short Strand and Ballymurphy. The curfew in the Lower Falls was broken early in the morning on Sunday 5 July, when over 1,000 women from the Andersonstown area marched on the Lower Falls with food and other groceries for the people there.

It was later reported that while the Lower Falls was under curfew and the streets emptied of people, the British 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 Falls Curfew had two major results. The first was that it deeply alienated Belfast's catholic Irish nationalist population from the British 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' [English, Armed Struggle (2003), p.136] 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 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". [cite book | last = Taylor | first = Peter | authorlink = Peter Taylor (Journalist) | title = Provos The IRA & Sinn Féin | publisher = Bloomsbury Publishing | date = 1997 | pages = p. 83 | doi = | isbn = 0-7475-3818-2 ]

The second main consequence of the incident 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 the previous December. The Officials blamed the Provisionals for starting the confrontation with British 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 OIRA 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.



*Richard English, "Armed Struggle - A History of the IRA", MacMillan, London 2003, ISBN 1-4050-0108-9
*Peter Taylor, "Provos - the IRA and Sinn Féin"
*Ed Moloney, "The Secret History of the IRA", Penguin, London 2002,
*Eamonn Mallie and Patrick Bishop, "The Provisional IRA", Corgi, London 1988. ISBN 0-552-13337-X
* [CAIN chronology for 1970 [http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/othelem/chron/ch70.htm]
*People's Democracy pamphlet on the incident [http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/ephemera/leaflet/PD_Free_Citizen_070770_78r.jpg]

External links

*Article by republican Danny Morrison, comparing the Falls Curfew with the Siege of Falluja in 2004. http://dannymorrison.ie/articles/fallstofalluja.php
*Republican propaganda footage of the Falls Curfew on youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3eSowF1eFI

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