Wednesday, December 8

Austin Currie Obituary | North Ireland

Austin Currie, who died aged 82, became the model for Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement in June 1968 when occupied a house in Caledon, in his native county of Tyrone. This was in protest at his assignment to a Protestant woman, the secretary of a local unionist politician, despite the fact that there are 250 people on the housing waiting list and many Catholic families living in overcrowded conditions.

The episode was a pivotal moment in Northern Ireland’s fight for civil rights, and in the following years Currie became the only person to be elected to both Irish parliaments, in Belfast and Dublin, and to serve as minister in both .

At the time of Caledon’s squatting, local councilors, most of whom were Protestants, made decisions about council housing in Northern Ireland. In fact, Currie, then 28 and the oldest of 11 siblings, had her own poignant story about her Catholic family struggling to find a landlord in rural, border, and bitterly sectarian Tyrone. His passionate style, coupled with his striking appearance, added to his appeal to the international media, as did the clear justice of his case.

Currie, with other civil rights activists, was at Caledon’s home just hours before the police evicted them, but photographs of her defiant stance became a recurring image of the civil rights movement.

It was the kind of publicity that caught the attention of Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson in London, making it impossible for his government to ignore discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland. Just over a year later, in August 1969, Wilson sent troops.

Austin, born in Coalisland, Co Tyrone, was the son of Mary (née O’Donnell) and John Currie. He was educated at the renowned St Patrick’s Academy, Dungannon, and graduated in politics and history from Queen’s University, Belfast. Fundamentally, he was one of a group of young Catholic activists from Northern Ireland (John Hume of Derry was another) who had benefited from the broader educational reforms launched in the UK after World War II and wanted equality in the job matched his new qualifications. Most were nationalists, but they had rejected republican violence as a way to reunify Ireland.

Austin Currie.  on the left, with other leaders of the Socialist Democratic Labor Party (SDLP) in 1973. From left to right: Gerry Fitt, John Hume and Paddy Devlin.
Austin Currie. on the left, with other leaders of the Socialist Democratic Labor Party (SDLP) in 1973. From left to right: Gerry Fitt, John Hume and Paddy Devlin. Photography: PA

Currie first made his mark in 1964 when he was elected to the then Northern Ireland Parliament in Stormont as a deputy for the East Tyrone Nationalist Party. He was the youngest person to get a seat at the institution. In 1970, with fellow nationalist Eddie McAteer and other Catholic politicians, he became a co-founder of the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), with Gerry Fitt as leader and Hume as deputy.

Currie held his seat in Stormont until 1972, when, in Westminster, Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath was forced by the growing wave of violence in the province to suspend the Stormont parliament and the Unionist government of Brian Faulknerand impose a direct government from London.

The following year, the SDLP, with Currie on its negotiating team, agreed at the talks in Sunningdale, Berkshire, to establish a power-sharing executive with the Faulkner unionists. As befitted a former squatter, Currie became Minister of Housing, Local Government and Planning, although his position, and the executive, collapsed in 1974 as a result of the loyal workers strike.

After Sunningdale, the violence in Northern Ireland escalated further. Currie’s home came under repeated attacks from loyalists, as well as the Provisional IRA, angered by his condemnation of his tactics. His wife, Annita (née Lynch), whom he had married in 1968, was threatened and one of his RUC guards shot him dead.

Currie, a turbulent and ambitious character, was also drawn into ranks within the SDLP for deals with other Catholic politicians to avoid splitting the Catholic vote. The population of Fermanagh and South Tyrone was balanced between Catholics and Protestants, and seats regularly fell into the hands of unionist politicians when the Catholic vote was divided between rival candidates.

In 1979, Hume, now the leader of the SDLP, decided not to run a candidate for the Westminster elections; Currie, with some justice, accused him of making secret and lonely decisions, and ran unsuccessfully as an independent candidate for the SDLP.

In 1981, the situation was further complicated by the election victory of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands as Sinn Féin MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Sands lived for 23 days, after which his agent, Owen Carron, participated in the secondary election caused by his death. The SDLP had completely misunderstood Catholic sympathy for the hunger strikers, and to regain popular support on the ground decided not to oppose Carron. Currie was furious.

Another problem was his lack of political income. After the suspension of the old Stormont parliament, Westminster stopped paying salaries to MPs in Northern Ireland, although they continued to act as local representatives and were politically active in finding a solution to the violence. The situation infuriated the Dublin government, which sought low-key ways to provide employment for SDLP MPs, just as Protestant businessmen from the north provided unionists. Currie found a job through a cement company, though it was just a way to keep him politically afloat to fight another day.

Although he still had ambitions within Northern Ireland, in 1989 Currie moved to Dublin, joined the Fine Gael party and successfully ran as a TD, a member of the Dáil, for Dublin West, becoming the only person to be chosen for Stormont. and the Irish Parliament.

In 1990 he ran as his party’s candidate for the Irish presidency, only to be roundly defeated by Labor party nominee Mary Robinson, and in 1994 Fine Gael entered a coalition with Labor and the Democratic Left and returned to power as Rainbow Alliance. with John Bruton as taoiseach. Currie served for three years as a junior minister, a minister of state, with responsibility for children.

But when the party was heavily defeated in 2002, Currie lost his seat in the Dáil and announced his retirement to “grow potatoes” in Co Kildare and watch Tyrone’s Gaelic football team from afar. He remained in contact with the SDLP, the Labor Party and Fine Gael during the negotiations that led to the 2000 Northern Ireland peace deal, but as a wise old man rather than a major player.

His autobiography, All Hell Will Break Loose (2004), contained vivid memories of the civil rights days and his involvement, once Hume’s initial secret peace deal was closed, as one of four SDLP negotiators with Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, in the late 1990s.

Currie is survived by Annita and her children, Estelle, Caitriona, Dualta, Austin, and Emer.

Joseph Austin Currie, politician and activist, born October 11, 1939; died on November 9, 2021

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