YOU WERE always a great one for your turning points,” one of Samuel Beckett’s characters says. Northern Ireland is similarly a great place for forks in the road after which next to nothing is the same again.
From Hope To Hatred: Voices of The Falls Curfew by Andrew Walsh, and published by The History Press, investigates one such lurch in the road: the curfew imposed on the Falls Road by the British army between July 5 and 7 1970. Like almost everything Ted Heath’s government did, it was something less than a complete success.
Beforehand, the Catholic population were mostly still, to paraphrase the Bucks Fizz song, making their minds up about the British army which had arrived the previous August and kept the loyalist pogrom gangs at bay. At times of crisis, cowards and opportunists often come over all Marxist and plead historical inevitability in the hope that it will absolve them of personal responsibility.
This book illustrates there was nothing inevitable about what became the implacable hostility of the majority of the Catholic population to the presence of the British army on their streets.
The troops were sent in to prevent a relatively small number of loyalists being allowed by the RUC to turn the North into a less sunny version of Rwanda.
There were certainly Provo bigmouths, like Seán MacStiofáin, itching to get straight down to the important work of killing members of the British army, with a few working class Protestants thrown in to spice the pot, but they had to bide their time, there being little support for such actions.
Thanks to the government of Edward Heath, all that changed in a few days. On June 27 the Orange Order were allowed march past Hooker Street on Belfast’s Crumlin Road, where homes had been burned down the previous August, and then on past Bombay Street which had been almost entirely destroyed.
Both the British and the Unionist government at Stormont were advised that this was an extremely provocative act. They preferred to heed Sir Ian Freeland, GOC of the British army in the North, who said: “It is easier to push them [Orange marchers] through the Ardoyne than to control the Shankill.”
When the marchers were forced through, rioting and gun battles ensured. Freeland was rewarded for his brilliant advice by being appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1971 Queen’s Birthday Honours. The army’s response to the trouble he had caused was the Falls Road curfew.
The area was sealed off. The army conducted house to house searches, which were carried out with all the charm and subtlety one would expect from men led by a man such as Sir Ian. The resistance came not, mostly, from the Provos, but from the Sticky IRA, many of whose then political supporters can these days be found in or around the leadership of the Irish Labour Party.
The Stickies were then the main political force on the Lower Falls. They killed a few in their time, but never had the taste for blowing up soldiers that their Provo cousins developed. The Stickies’ ‘socialism’ was also a factor in their decline at this point. Whereas the Provo message was simple: shoot Brits, talk Irish, and sing the Four Green Fields; the Sticky message included a bit about working class unity between Catholics and Protestants and an unfortunate tendency to quote from The Collected Works of Leonid Brezhnev.
One observer says: “Overnight the population turned from neutral or even sympathetic support for the military to outright hatred”.
Thanks to Sirs Ian Freeland and Edward Heath, the Provos’ hour had arrived.