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Austin Currie: Politician and civil rights activist 1939-2021

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When Northern Irish politician Austin Currie smashed a window to break into a council house in the village of Caledon in June 1968, he was making both trouble, and history.

With that act, Currie, who has died aged 82, helped launch the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland.

His aim was to fight discrimination against Catholics by the region’s Protestant majority — a cause that even then, a year before the three decades-long sectarian strife known as the Troubles erupted, was to prove highly dangerous.

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

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

All the same, a politician hailed as courageous and principled during a 40-year career that saw him become the first person to serve in government on both sides of the Irish border, later admitted to being nervous at the prospect of staying overnight in case of attacks by Protestant thugs.

He and his family were to suffer 30 attacks at their home outside Dungannon as Northern Ireland descended into brutal sectarian conflict. During one in 1972, his wife Annita was beaten unconscious and had the letters UVF — standing for Protestant paramilitary group Ulster Volunteer Force — carved into her breast.

Although only 28 at the time of the Caledon sit-in, Currie, who with the late John Hume went on to found the Social Democratic and Labour party, was no stranger to conviction politics and controversy.

The previous day, he had been thrown out of the Northern Ireland Assembly for calling John Taylor, a leading Unionist now Lord Kilcooney, a liar. “All hell will break loose, and by God, I will lead it,” he yelled at the jeering Unionist benches in Stormont as he marched out of the chamber. He used that phrase for the title of his 2004 memoir.

The Caledon protest lasted only a few hours but made headline news. Building on the momentum, he led nonsectarian civil rights marches. The first, from Coalisland to Dungannon in August 1968, passed off peacefully. But the second, in the city known to unionists as Londonderry and nationalists as Derry, in October that year, swiftly descended into violence as police used batons on protesters.

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

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

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

He had moved south to join Ireland’s Fine Gael party at the invitation of its leader, Garret FitzGerald, winning 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 lashed out at discrimination of Catholics in a speech 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 headed by 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 and noted that “in his early political life he did so at a time when it was not only unpopular, but positively dangerous, to speak truth to power”.

He was a housing minister in 1974 in Northern Ireland’s shortlived power-sharing executive and struggled on 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 having been prevailed upon to run, according to one former party colleague. He lost his seat and retired from politics in 2002, but remained in Ireland, raising greyhounds at his home in Kildare.

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

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

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

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