From the Falls to Falluja


Listening to the claims being made by US army officers in regard to the battle for Falluja I was reminded of the claims once made by British army officers about the Falls in West Belfast, especially during the curfew of July 1970.

I know that the scale in human death and suffering is not the same and these are different scenarios but there are some parallels, not least the hackneyed script the Americans appear to be working from and the claims that their actions are aimed at liberating people.

Writing about the decision to ‘take’ the rebellious Falls, Colonel Michael Dewar said: “General Freeland was not prepared to let the IRA get away with it. He decided a show of force was needed and that the Falls had to be brought back under control.” Another officer described the action as aimed at “giving the ordinary decent citizen a chance to go about his business.”

Stormont Prime Minister, Major Chichester-Clark said: “We all regret, of course, the inconvenience caused to decent law-abiding people in this area, who constitute the great majority, but we are determined to rid them and Northern Ireland as a whole of the terrorists in their midst.”

After the pogroms of August 1969 the IRA had split into two factions whom the media referred to as ‘The Officials’ and ‘The Provisionals’. Both had gathered weapons for the protection of the area but these weapons had never been used against the British army until this weekend in July 1970.

It was a British army raid on a house in Balkan Street, just off the Falls Road, and its seizure of an arms dump that sparked widespread rioting and was the pretext the military needed to seal and search around fifty streets in the vicinity - home to 10,000 people. The curfew announcement was made from an army helicopter flying over the Falls, and on TV and radio.

And so over the weekend of the 3-5 July the British army imposed what was an illegal curfew, warned all civilians to stay indoors or risk being arrested or shot and sent in 1,500 troops, among them the Black Watch. The Stormont MP for the Falls, Paddy Devlin, was put up against a wall and told, “You will be shot if you turn around.” When he protested a soldier said: “We will beat your brains out if you don’t shut up.” Among journalists who were arrested was Henry Kelly (now a presenter of ‘Game for a Laugh’) who was fired on by a soldier, the shot hitting a wall just a few feet above his head.

The soldiers repeatedly fired CS gas into the narrow and close-knit streets before going in shooting, then looting homes and two public houses. Three hundred families managed to escape and were evacuated in cars and on the back of lorries on the Friday night but most, including many old people, were trapped.

A military spokesman was to claim on television that his men had engaged/killed dozens of snipers (like the ‘1,000 insurgents’ killed in Falluja). But it was four civilians the British killed, not IRA men. Billy Burns (54) was shot while closing his shop. Patrick Elliman (62) was fatally wounded in his own street when he went out for some fresh air. Charles O’Neill (36), who had served 12 years in the RAF and was only temporarily home from England to look after his dying mother, was mowed down by an armoured car as he appealed to its driver to halt. Zbigniew Vglik (23), of Polish extraction, was a freelance photographer from London who was shot dead as he attempted to get fresh film for his camera. Forty-three other civilians were injured in the fighting and 19 soldiers were also wounded.

People were ordered not to open their doors only to have their doors kicked in by soldiers who systematically ransacked homes, ripping up floor boards, knocking in boast-walls. Television sets were smashed and statues broken. Money, wages and watches went missing. Gas meters were rifled by soldiers of the Black Watch. Some 250 people were arrested on a variety of charges, mostly riotous behaviour, including a 61-year-old man - who was blind. Many of those arrested were physically abused. There were widespread allegations of soldiers planting ammunition. A British army spokesman warned that anyone making false allegations against his men would have action taken against them.

On Sunday morning the British army stated that they were in ‘complete control’ of the Falls. Two Ulster Unionist MPs, John Brooke and William Long, were driven triumphantly around the area on top of a military jeep, “like combat officers surveying a captured town”, wrote one newspaper.

In the House of Commons Tories praised the actions of the army, one describing their behaviour as “impeccable”. An Ulster Unionist stated that “the great majority of people in Northern Ireland admire very much the bravery and courage that the troops have shown.” Labour’s Denis Healey stated that parliament had “nothing but admiration for the humanity and discipline with which the British army has conducted itself under extreme provocation.”

The ‘Belfast Telegraph’ wrote: “A Republican stronghold has been flushed out, and a potential threat to peace removed.”

Taoiseach Jack Lynch complained about “the unilateral disarmament of one section of the Belfast people – the Catholic minority” and said that “partition is basic to the whole problem.” Lynch sent his Minister for External Affairs, Dr Patrick Hillery, on a secret visit to West Belfast to assess the situation for himself, without informing the Belfast or London governments who were outraged at this breach in diplomatic convention. Hillery said that out-dated guns had been collected by the people to protect themselves after a savage attack [August 1969], and now they were again unprotected.

In total about ninety weapons, many dating from the First and Second World Wars, 20,000 rounds of ammunition, incendiary devices, transmitters and a bow and arrow, were seized. But the British army lost the battle for the hearts and minds of an entire community, just as the Americans have in Iraq.

The Falls Curfew would have lasted much longer than it did had it not been for the actions of the women of West Belfast. On the afternoon of Sunday, 5 July, thousands of women marched down to the British army cordons and with their bare hands pulled the barbed wire barricades aside. The soldiers were taken completely by surprise, lost the initiative and realised that they couldn’t open fire on so many. The women were carrying bread, milk and vegetables, meat parcels and biscuits. Some pushed prams, some were old people outraged by the curfew but had never felt strong enough or motivated enough to act so defiantly before. Many were returning to their homes.

They chanted, “Come out! Come out! The curfew is broken! The curfew is broken!”

People emerged from their homes with tears of joy and relief and cheered their true liberators. As for the British army – they were never welcome in the Falls again.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison