Here’s a shortened version of the comments on the death of Austin Currie in the Assembly yesterday. With the exception of the SDLP who opened and closed the session, I’ve stuck to just one party spokespersons. The breadth and the quality of the contributions are striking from right across the house:
Nicola Mallon (SDLP): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I begin today by offering my condolences, on behalf of the SDLP, to Austin Currie’s family: his wife, Annita, and his children, Estelle, Caitríona, Dualta, Austin and Emer. For a man who achieved so much during his life and contributed so much to peace in this place, I know that nothing surpassed the pride and love that he had for his family.
Austin Currie was the definition of a radical. Growing up in Tyrone, he saw the impact of systemic discrimination in working-class communities, particularly against Catholics. People were forced to live cheek by jowl in overcrowded housing, getting a good education was an uphill struggle, the best-paid jobs were strictly off limits, and the corrosive impact of poverty was engrained in everyday life.
Like many of his generation, Austin refused to stand by and accept that this was as good as it got for the people whom he grew up with. He became a powerful symbol in the peaceful civil rights movement, standing against the corruption of housing allocation and standing for equality for everyone regardless of their political or religious background.
The Caledon squat, which became a defining moment in our history, is an example of the courage that characterised Austin. He, Patsy Gildernew and Joe Campbell took a shovel to the window of that house, and it was a hammer blow to the oppressive scaffolding of discrimination that defined the state at that time.
In the tradition of civil rights activists like the late congressman John Lewis, Austin never stopped trying to find ways to get into “good trouble”.
He also knew, in 1968, that protesting was not going to be enough. If we want change in our society, we must all work every day against injustice, intolerance, discrimination and unfairness,
Austin’s life is testament to the political creed that the people of this island are better served when we set aside our differences and work together in our common interests. As a member of the power-sharing Executive at Sunningdale, Austin retains the distinction of being the only Minister to serve in Government, North and South. He understood the need to exercise power in the interests of the people whom we represent, and he recognised that that is the only way to achieve lasting change. That is his most enduring legacy.
Like many civil rights leaders, Austin and his family paid a high price for their bravery. His house was regularly attacked, and, in one incident, his wife, Annita, was subjected to a horrific assault. Despite this ordeal, his commitment to peace and to standing up for what was right never wavered. He was not deterred. His contribution to politics right across our island will never be forgotten. When things got difficult, he stuck it out, stayed the course and changed people’s lives for the better.
John O’Dowd (Sinn Féin): On behalf of Sinn Féin, following the death of Austin Currie, I express my condolences to his family, friends and colleagues, and, of course, to SDLP Members of the Assembly.
Austin will be remembered for his lifelong contribution to the civil rights movement and to politics across the island of Ireland over many years. As has been stated, he was a leading figure in the early civil rights protests, including the famous house squat at Caledon, alongside the family of my colleague Colm Gildernew. That protest brought international attention to state-sponsored discrimination and was a turning point. It became a touchstone in the civil rights movement, marking the beginning of the end of the then Orange state.
Austin Currie was, of course, a Nationalist Party MP and, as has been stated, a founder member of the SDLP. Later, he joined Fine Gael and became the only person to hold ministerial office, North and South.
In later life, he continued to speak out against the disastrous impact of partition on our island and people. As is the nature of politics, I disagreed with Austin on many things. Today, however, I recognise his contribution to politics and public life. My thoughts and condolences, and those of my party, are with his family and colleagues at this sad and difficult time.
Edwin Poots (DUP): Austin Currie was a remarkable politician. He was, first and foremost, a very able politician, as demonstrated by the fact that he was a Minister in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. You had only to listen to Austin Currie on the radio to know that he was an articulate politician. He spoke with great clarity and expressed his position remarkably well. He was also very affable. In spite of the fact that my father and Austin Currie were at opposite ends of the spectrum on many issues, they had a good relationship outside the Chamber. The debates that took place in the 1973 Assembly were hostile and hard-hitting. Beyond the Chamber, however, Austin Currie was an affable man.
Austin Currie and my father came from similar backgrounds. Many may wish to portray a system that advantaged one group of people over another. However, the group that my father came from was hugely disadvantaged. In representing the many who lived in two-up two-down houses, where cockroaches crawled up the walls of outside toilets, it made no difference to Austin Currie and my father where people came from. Their representation was irrespective of whether they lived on the Shankill Road, the Falls Road or anywhere else.
We appreciate that much has been done over the years to ensure that the value of representing ordinary working people has come to the fore and should be at the fore of everything that we do. If we can ensure that everybody, irrespective of background or class, faith, creed or whatever, gets a fair crack of the whip, that would be a great legacy for Austin Currie and for other politicians of that generation.
Robbie Butler (UUP): On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I pay my condolences on the passing of Mr Austin Currie. I did not know Austin Currie, but one has to have only a passing interest in Northern Irish politics to realise the impact that he had on local politics, not least as a committed civil rights activist and one of the founding members of the SDLP.
His influence was not confined to Northern Irish politics, though. Almost uniquely, he was elected on both sides of the border, to Stormont and the Dáil, and served as a Minister in both legislatures, which was quite the achievement. He will long be remembered for his role in the late 1960s in the civil rights movement and for his role in the SDLP and, indeed, Fine Gael.
As has been mentioned, Austin Currie was a man of courage, and he and his family often bore the brunt of that courage. We in the Ulster Unionist Party, and others, also remember his very powerful words and his strong and welcome condemnation of the IRA following the murder of former Ulster Unionist politician and Stormont Speaker Sir Norman Stronge and his son in 1981. Austin Currie was clearly a man of peace who rejected violence and murder, and he did not mince his words when he compared the character of the murdered Stronges with that of their cowardly killers. My thoughts and the thoughts of the Ulster Unionist Party are with Austin Currie, his family, his friends and his SDLP colleagues.
Andrew Muir (Alliance Party): On behalf of the Alliance Party, I offer my sincere and profound condolences to Austin’s family, friends and party colleagues. I did not know Austin Currie personally. From reading his autobiography, ‘All Hell Will Break Loose’, however, I know that he was a man of immense courage. He was a man who, along with others, led the Northern Ireland civil rights movement, beginning with his squatting in a house in Caledon, which Nichola Mallon described. Some people ask me why the Housing Executive and the points-based housing allocation system exist. Events such as that evoke memories of the case for change and of why we needed to transform Northern Ireland into a more equal place.
Austin was elected to this place, in the old Stormont, at, I understand, the age of 24. That makes me feel much older. He really was a trailblazer in his time, and he set up the SDLP, along with others, in 1970. As Members have said, he won a seat for Fine Gael, served in the Irish Parliament and Government and could claim to have served in both parts of Ireland as a Minister, as the Minister of Housing, Local Government and Planning in the power-sharing executive of 1974 and as a Minister in the South.
He will be remembered for his fearless and immense courage and for being a giant of the civil rights movement. Hearing the news of his passing and reading the newspaper reports over the weekend of his funeral reminded me of the fiftieth anniversary of the civil rights movement in the Guildhall in 2018. I was very honoured and privileged to be at that event, and it makes me recall that so many of those giants in our history are gone. Ivan Cooper, who was at that event, is no longer with us. John Hume is no longer with us. At the end of the event, a very powerful tune was sung, which still resonates with the challenges that we face as a society today. It was ‘We Shall Overcome’.
Jim Allister (TUV): I readily join in expressing condolences to the Currie family and, indeed, to Austin Currie’s political family, the SDLP. He was clearly a cherished leader in that party from times past and one to whom its members continue to look up and from whom they draw inspiration. I never knew or met Austin Currie, but it is clear that he was a politician of conviction and action.
One thing that stands out about him in my mind is that, no matter how strong his conviction or his sense of grievance, he did not sully them by endorsing or supporting violence. He recognised that political change properly comes through campaigning and democratic means. Unlike others, therefore, he did not resort to or support the hideous campaign of violence that was wreaked upon this Province so needlessly by the Provisional IRA and others. That will be part of his legacy.
Today, I join in the tributes and the condolences to his family.
(Closing for the SDLP) Daniel McCrossan: On behalf of the SDLP, I, too, pay tribute to our dear friend and colleague Austin Currie and offer our deepest condolences to his wife, Annita, and to Estelle, Caitríona, Dualta, Austin and Emer. As Pat Hume was to John, Annita was Austin’s rock. They were inseparable and journeyed through life together, side by side, taking on the challenges that faced them every day.
Austin Currie was ferociously decent, a powerhouse of conviction and a man who stood strongly for each and every person in his community — in our community. He was a giant amongst politicians of the time, and he was respected and admired right across the island of Ireland for his tremendous work on battling hard for equality, social justice and civil rights.
Austin was first elected for the Nationalist Party in East Tyrone, where he stood up against the great injustice facing Catholics and others in the allocation of social housing. That sparked a sit-in occupation in Caledon in 1968, which, ultimately, ignited the civil rights movement. Austin was vehemently and wholeheartedly opposed to violence and was a strict advocate of protesting fully and only by peaceful means. It was no surprise that, along with John Hume, Ivan Cooper, Paddy Devlin, Paddy O’Hanlon, Gerry Fitt and many others, he came to form the SDLP in 1970. Austin fiercely advocated equality and was a proud Tyrone man who wanted an end to discriminatory practices facing Catholics. He believed that everyone should be treated equally, and he was completely right in that view, but it was not always easy for Austin and his peers, who were all young leaders of the civil rights movement. He was a very young elected representative, and now, today, it is very easy for many to take power-sharing, democracy and equality for granted in certain aspects, but it was all hard-won, and that battle continues.
It was not easy for Austin’s family either. Since his death at the weekend and during his funeral, it was a sore reminder to hear at first hand the accounts of the assaults, attacks, threats and abuse directed at Austin and his family by loyalists and republicans alike. Overcoming that for the greater good of peace needed significant levels of personal sacrifice and conviction, not least by his wife, Annita, who suffered incredibly difficult attacks during that time. His family suffered for over 30 years as a result, just because he stood up for what was right.
Austin went on to represent East Tyrone as MP until 1972, and he was heavily involved in the early iterations of power-sharing in the North through the 1970s and 1980s. He then moved South and was elected as TD for Dublin West in 1989. He was appointed Minister of State for Children and even stood for the Irish presidency in 1990. He has a long-lasting legacy from his beginnings in Tyrone to being a part of the Government in Dublin. Ultimately, he was a peacemaker who helped to forge a path from a divided society to a reconciled and shared future for us all. It is clear that Austin Currie had an instrumental impact on Irish politics on both sides of the border, which is evidenced from the many tributes paid to him over recent days.
I will finish on this. His daughter stood at the funeral, thanked everyone for their attendance and said:
“Daddy reached the great old age of 82 and he died peacefully in his own bed … But he never stopped thinking about the people who didn’t”.
She made strong reference to Columba McVeigh, who was killed by the IRA in 1975 and who is:
“still lying somewhere far away from home.”
In her call, as she paid tribute to her father, she asked that that family receive those remains so that they can lay their loved one to peace. On behalf of the party, I offer my condolences to the family. May Austin rest in peace. We thank him for his contribution to this island.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty