Austin Currie obituary | Northern Ireland

Austin Currie, who has died aged 82, grew to become the poster boy of the Northern Ireland civil rights motion in June 1968 when he squatted a house in Caledon, in his residence county of Tyrone. This was in protest at its allocation to a Protestant girl, the secretary to an area Unionist politician, regardless of there being 250 individuals on the housing ready record, and plenty of Catholic households dwelling in overcrowded situations.

The episode was a touchstone second within the Northern Ireland civil rights wrestle, and within the years that adopted Currie went on to change into the one individual to be elected to each Irish parliaments – in Belfast and Dublin – and to function a minister in each.

On the time of the Caledon squat, council housing choices in Northern Ireland had been made by native councillors, most of whom had been Protestants. Certainly, Currie, then aged 28 and the eldest of 11 kids, had his personal shifting story of his Catholic household’s issues discovering a landlord in rural, border and bitterly sectarian Tyrone. His passionate model, alongside along with his hanging seems to be, added to his enchantment for the worldwide media – as did the clear justice of his case.

Currie, with different civil rights activists, was within the Caledon home solely hours earlier than the police ousted them, however the images of his defiant stand grew to become a recurrent picture of the civil rights motion.

It was the sort of publicity that caught the eye of the Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, in London, making it inconceivable for his authorities to disregard discrimination towards Catholics in Northern Ireland. Simply over a 12 months later, in August 1969, Wilson sent in the troops.

Born in Coalisland, Co Tyrone, Austin was the son of Mary (nee O’Donnell) and John Currie. He was educated on the famend St Patrick’s academy, Dungannon, and graduated in politics and historical past from Queen’s College Belfast. Crucially, he was one in every of a gaggle of younger Northern Ireland Catholic activists – John Hume from Derry was one other – who had benefited from the broader instructional reforms initiated throughout the UK after the second world struggle, and needed job equality to match their new {qualifications}. Most had been nationalists, however had rejected republican violence as a approach of reuniting Ireland.

Austin Currie. left, with fellow leaders of the Socialist Democratic Labour party (SDLP) in 1973. From left: Gerry Fitt, John Hume and Paddy Devlin.
Austin Currie. left, with fellow leaders of the Socialist Democratic Labour celebration (SDLP) in 1973. From left: Gerry Fitt, John Hume and Paddy Devlin. {Photograph}: PA

Currie first made his mark in 1964 when he was elected to the then Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont because the Nationalist celebration MP for East Tyrone. He was the youngest individual ever to realize a seat within the establishment. In 1970, along with his fellow Nationalist Eddie McAteer and different Catholic politicians, he grew to become a co-founder of the Social Democratic and Labour celebration (SDLP), with Gerry Fitt as chief and Hume as deputy.

Currie held his Stormont seat till 1972, when, at Westminster, the Conservative prime minister Edward Heath was pressured by the rising tide of violence within the province to droop the Stormont parliament and the Unionist authorities of Brian Faulkner, and impose direct rule from London.

The next 12 months, the SDLP – with Currie in its negotiating group – agreed on the talks in Sunningdale, Berkshire, to arrange a power-sharing govt with Faulkner’s Unionists. As befitted an erstwhile squatter, Currie grew to become minister for housing, native authorities and planning, although his place – and the manager – collapsed in 1974 on account of the loyalist workers’ strike.

After Sunningdale, the violence in Northern Ireland intensified nonetheless additional. Currie’s residence got here beneath repeated assault from loyalists, and likewise from the Provisional IRA, angered by his condemnation of their techniques. His spouse, Annita (nee Lynch), whom he had married in 1968, was threatened and one in every of his RUC guards shot lifeless.

A turbulent and bold character, Currie additionally grew to become embroiled in rows inside the SDLP over offers with different Catholic politicians to keep away from splitting the Catholic vote. The inhabitants of Fermanagh and South Tyrone was evenly balanced between Catholics and Protestants, and seats usually fell to Unionist politicians when the Catholic vote was divided between rival candidates.

In 1979, Hume, by now the SDLP chief, determined to not run a candidate for the Westminster elections; Currie, with some justice, accused him of creating secretive, solitary choices, and stood unsuccessfully as an Unbiased SDLP candidate.

In 1981 the state of affairs grew to become additional sophisticated by the byelection victory of the IRA starvation striker Bobby Sands as Sinn Féin MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Sands lived on for 23 days, after which his agent, Owen Carron, stood within the byelection attributable to his dying. The SDLP had fully misinterpret Catholic sympathy for the starvation strikers, and to win again in style help on the bottom determined to not stand towards Carron. Currie was livid.

One other working sore was his lack of political earnings. After the suspension of the outdated Stormont parliament, Westminster stopped paying salaries to Northern Ireland’s MPs – although they continued to behave as native representatives and had been politically energetic within the seek for an answer to the violence. The state of affairs infuriated the Dublin authorities, which sought discreet methods to offer employment for the SDLP MPs, simply as northern Protestant businessmen supplied for the Unionists. Currie was discovered a job by way of a cement firm, although it was only a approach of holding him politically afloat to struggle one other day.

Though he nonetheless had ambitions inside Northern Ireland, in 1989 Currie moved to Dublin, joined the Nice Gael celebration and stood efficiently as a TD, a member of the Dáil, for Dublin West, turning into the one individual to be elected to each Stormont and the Irish parliament.

In 1990 he stood as his celebration’s candidate for the Irish presidency, solely to be roundly defeated by the Labour celebration’s nominee, Mary Robinson, and in 1994 Nice Gael entered a coalition with Labour and the Democratic Left and returned to energy because the Rainbow Alliance, with John Bruton as taoiseach. Currie served for 3 years as a junior minister, a minister of state, with accountability for youngsters.

However when the celebration was closely defeated in 2002, Currie misplaced his Dáil seat and introduced his retirement – to “develop potatoes” in Co Kildare and watch Tyrone’s Gaelic soccer group from afar. He had continued to remain involved with the SDLP, the Labour celebration and Nice Gael all through the negotiations that led to the peace settlement in Northern Ireland in 2000, however as a smart elder fairly than a primary participant.

His autobiography, All Hell Will Break Unfastened (2004), contained vivid recollections of the civil rights days and of his involvement, as soon as Hume’s preliminary secret peace deal was carried out, as one of many 4 SDLP negotiators with the Sinn Féin chief Gerry Adams within the late Nineties.

Currie is survived by Annita and their kids, Estelle, Caitriona, Dualta, Austin and Emer.

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

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