Tue. Dec 7th, 2021

When Northern Irish politician Austin Currie smashed a window in June 1968 to break into a town hall in the town of Caledon, he made both trouble and history.

With this act, Currie, who died at the age of 82, helped the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland.

Its aim was to fight discrimination against Catholics by the region’s Protestant majority – a case that even then, a year before the three-decade-long sectarian strife known as the Troubles broke out, would be extremely dangerous.

“Some dramatic action required, ”was how he described his act of civil disobedience.

Currie and two companions blocked themselves in the house to protest the fact that it was assigned to a single 19-year-old Protestant woman, secretary of a trade union politician, when 269 other people were on the housing waiting list and many Catholics live in cramped conditions. The decision was motivated by a “very strong sense of injustice”, he said.

Nevertheless, a politician who was hailed as courageous and principled during a 40-year career in which he became the first person to serve in government on both sides of the Irish border, later admitted that he was nervous about the prospect to spend the night in case of attacks by Protestant thugs.

He and his family would experience 30 attacks at their home outside Dungannon while Northern Ireland plunged into brutal sectarian conflict. During one in 1972, his wife Annita was knocked unconscious and had the letters UVF – which stands for Protestant paramilitary group Ulster Volunteer Force – cut in her chest.

Although only 28 at the time of the Caledon seat, Currie, who with late John Hume continued to form the Social Democratic and Labor Party, was no stranger to persuasion politics and controversy.

The previous day he had been thrown out of the Northern Ireland Assembly for calling John Taylor, a prominent Unionist who is now Lord Kilcooney, a liar. “All hell will break loose, and with God, I will lead it,” he shouted on the mocking Unionist benches in Stormont as he marched out of the room. He used that phrase for the title of his 2004 memoir.

The Caledon demonstration lasted only a few hours, but made headlines. Building on the momentum, he led non-sectarian civil rights marches. The first, from Coalisland to Dungannon in August 1968, proceeded peacefully. But the second, in the city known to union members as Londonderry and nationalists as Derry, quickly escalated into violence in October that year when police used batons on protesters.

“It was like the charge of the Light Brigade,” Currie later said. “Police in front of us, police behind us, no way out.” Nearly 100 people were injured.

SDLP co-founder Austin Currie in January 2020

SDLP co-founder Austin Currie in January 2020 © Press Eye Ltd / Shutterstock

Two years after the outbreak of trouble, he took his campaign for justice to Downing Street and in 1971 staged a two-day sit-in and hunger strike with other protesters to demand an inquiry into the treatment of prisoners in Northern Ireland.

Tributes poured out on both sides of the border for Currie, who died peacefully in his sleep at his home in County Kildare in the Republic of Ireland.

He moved south to join Ireland’s Fine Gael party at the invitation of leader Garret FitzGerald, who won a seat in the Dáil parliament in 1989.

The eldest of 11 children, Currie was born in County Tyrone. His political career began when he spoke in a speech against discrimination against Catholics while a student at Queen’s University Belfast, where he studied history and politics.

He was elected to Stormont in 1964 for the Nationalist Party under the leadership of Eddie McAteer.

John McDowell, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, called Currie a “responsible radical” who pursued justice and peace, noting that “in his early political life he did so at a time when it was not just was unpopular, but positively dangerous, to speak the truth with power ”.

He was Minister of Housing in Northern Ireland’s short-lived power-sharing administration in 1974 and struggled in politics after it collapsed later that year, with no salary or seat.

He later served as junior minister for children in Ireland’s 1994-’97 coalition and made a failed presidential bid in 1990 after being given the privilege of running, according to one former party colleague. He lost his seat and retired from politics in 2002, but remained in Ireland and raised greyhounds at his home in Kildare.

Currie remembered the 1968-69 civil rights movement as “the most successful political action we have had in Northern Ireland”.

Ireland’s Taoisoeach, Micheál Martin, described him as a “peacemaker”. President Michael D. Higgins called him a “dedicated, sincere, and very dedicated politician.”

For SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, he was simply “a leader at a time when leaders were needed.”

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