Austin Currie, who died at the age of 82, became a poster boy for the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement in June 1968, when he was crushed in a house in Caledon in his hometown of Tyrone. This was in protest of its allocation to a Protestant woman, secretary of a local unionist politician, despite the fact that there are 250 people on the waiting list for housing and many Catholic families living in overcrowded conditions.
The episode was a touchstone moment in the Northern Ireland civil rights struggle, and in the years that followed, Currie continued to be the only person elected to both Irish parliaments – in Belfast and Dublin – and served as minister in both.
At the time of the Caledon squat, local councilor housing decisions in Northern Ireland were made by local councilors, most of whom were Protestants. In fact, Currie, then 28 and the eldest of 11 children, had her own moving story about her Catholic family’s problems finding a landlord in the countryside, the border and the bitterly sectarian Tyrone. His passionate style along with his striking appearance contributed to his appeal to the international media – and so did the clear justice of his case.
Currie was with other civil rights activists in the Caledon House just hours before police fired them, but the photographs of his defiant stand became a recurring image of the civil rights movement.
It was the kind of publicity that caught Labor’s 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 in troops.
Born in Coalisland, Co Tyrone, Austin was the son of Mary (nee O’Donnell) and John Currie. He was educated at the famous St Patrick’s Academy, Dungannon, and graduated in politics and history from Queen’s University Belfast. Crucially, he was one of a group of young Catholic activists in Northern Ireland – John Hume of Derry was another – who had benefited from the broader education reforms launched throughout Britain after World War II and wanted employment for to match their new qualifications. Most were nationalists, but had rejected Republican violence as a way to reunite Ireland.
Currie first made headlines in 1964 when he was elected to the then Northern Ireland Parliament in Stormont as the Nationalist Party’s MP for East Tyrone. He was the youngest ever to get a place in the institution. In 1970, he, along with his nationalist Eddie McAteer and other Catholic politicians, co-founded the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), with Gerry Fitt as leader and Hume as deputy.
Currie held his Stormont seat until 1972, when Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath of Westminster was forced by the rising violence in the province to suspend the Stormont Parliament and Unionist government Brian Faulkner and impose direct rule from London.
The following year, the SDLP – with Currie in its negotiating team – agreed at the negotiations in Sunningdale, Berkshire, to set up a power-sharing director with Faulkner’s unionists. As befits 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 loyalist workers’ strike.
Following Sunningdale, violence in Northern Ireland intensified further. Curries’ home came under repeated attacks from loyalists and also from the Provisional IRA, angry at his condemnation of their tactics. His wife, Annita (née Lynch), whom he had married in 1968, was threatened and one of his RUC guards shot and killed.
A turbulent and ambitious character, Currie was also entangled in ranks within the SDLP over agreements with other Catholic politicians to avoid splitting the Catholic voice. The people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone were equally balanced between Catholics and Protestants, and seats regularly fell to Unionist politicians when the Catholic vote was divided between rival candidates.
In 1979, Hume, now the SDLP leader, decided not to run for Westminster; Currie accused him of some justice in making secret, lonely decisions and unsuccessfully positioned himself as an independent SDLP candidate.
In 1981, the situation was further complicated by the IRA’s hunger-striking Bobby Sands’ election victory as Sinn Féin MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Sands lived on for 23 days, after which his agent, Owen Carron, ran in the by-elections caused by his death. The SDLP had completely misunderstood Catholic sympathy for the hunger strikers, and in order to win popular support back on the ground, they decided not to stand against Carron. Currie was furious.
Another running back was his lack of political income. Following the suspension of the old Stormont Parliament, Westminster stopped paying salaries to Northern Ireland MPs – although they continued to act as local representatives and were politically active in the search for a solution to the violence. The situation angered the Dublin government, which sought discreet ways to provide employment for SDLP MPs, just as northern Protestant businessmen provided for the Unionists. Currie got a job through a cement company, even if it was just a way to keep him politically afloat to fight another day.
Although still ambitious in Northern Ireland, Currie moved to Dublin in 1989, joined the Fine Gael party and successfully stood as TD, a member of Dáil, for Dublin West, becoming the only person elected to both Stormont and the Irish Parliament.
In 1990, he ran as his party’s candidate for the Irish presidency, only to be defeated by the Labor Party’s candidate, Mary Robinson, and in 1994 Fine Gael entered into a coalition with Labor and the Democratic Left and returned to power as the Rainbow Alliance. , with John Bruton as taoiseach. Currie served as junior minister, prime minister in charge of children.
But when the party was heavily defeated in 2002, Currie lost his Dáil seat and announced his retirement – to “grow potatoes” in Co Kildare and watch Tyrone’s Gaelic football team in the distance. He remained in touch with the SDLP, the Labor Party and Fine Gael during the negotiations leading up to the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement in 2000, but as a wise elder rather than a key player.
His autobiography, All Hell Will Break Loose (2004), contained vivid recollections of Civil Rights Days and his involvement when Hume’s initial secret peace agreement was reached, as one of the four SDLP negotiators with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams at the end of 1990s.
Currie leaves behind Annita and their children, Estelle, Caitriona, Dualta, Austin and Emer.