The Falls Curfew, fifty years on

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By Lasair Dhearg

“Move on you Irish Bastard…there are not enough of you dead”.

These were the words uttered to a dying Charles O’Neill as he lay mortally wounded on the Falls Road moments after being impacted by a British Army Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC).

The British soldier who stood over his body was one of a number of passengers in the convoy of armoured vehicles that is said to have deliberately mowed him down. Another prodded his ribs as he lay on the ground.

O’Neill, a 36 year old catholic and former RAF serviceman, is said to have stepped out onto the road in order to flag the APC down, only for it to speed up and veer in his direction. He was one of a handful of civilians to die during the extensive military operation that became known as ‘the Falls Curfew’.

As hostilities steadily increased on the 3rd day of July 1970, large numbers of British Army personnel piled into Republican held districts on the Falls Road in West Belfast. As they did so, residents began erecting makeshift barricades to keep them out; buses were hijacked, parked across the entrances to streets, and set alight. It did little to stop the nearly 3,000 foreign troops now massing in the area.

As it was becoming increasingly clear that the military exercise was aimed at gathering locally held weapons in the area, efforts were made by volunteers to smuggle out what they could. The increasingly sporadic confrontation saw scores of volunteers engage the British Army in running gun battles that would be downplayed by the occupying forces. However, journalist Simon Winchester would later write, “To anyone who experienced the battle, it was perfectly obvious that hundreds and hundreds of bullets were being fired by both sides…”. As CS gas now filled every nook and cranny of the narrow Belfast streets, along with the lungs of its inhabitants, preparations were being made to further hem the area in.

At 10pm, just hours after confrontations had begun, an indefinite curfew was declared. Thousands of British troops, using barbed wire and supported by armoured vehicles and helicopters flying low over the streets with loudspeakers, started to seal the area off encompassing nearly 3,000 homes.

The scene was set for a major confrontation that would see over 1,000 homes and businesses ripped apart by British soldiers who were ordered to be aggressive and violent. 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.

In total, 4 civilians were to die at the hands of those same mercenaries:

Charles O’Neill, 36, mowed down on the Falls Road. 3rd of July 1970.

William Burns, 54, shot dead at his own front door. 3rd of July 1970

Patrick Elliman, 62, shot in the head on Marchioness Street. 3rd of July 1970 (succumbed to his wounds one week later).

And Zbigniew Uglik, 23, a Polish amatuer cameraman from England, shot dead at the rear of a house as he fetched his camera. 4th of July 1970.

60 more civilians suffered gunshot wounds, and a total of 337 people were placed under arrest during the curfew, which was to come to an end on the afternoon of Sunday the 5th of July. In a massive act of community solidarity, around 3000 women marched from the Andersonstown area in a convoy of prams filled with groceries and essentials for the imprisoned residents of the Falls, and broke through British enemy lines and ended the curfew.

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