Austin Currie, civil rights leader and SDLP co-founder dies aged 82

Born in 1939 and the eldest of 11 children, Austin Currie was originally from Coalisland in Co Tyrone. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd

In a statement on Tuesday, his family said they were heartbroken at the loss. Mr Currie died peacefully in his sleep at his home in Derrymullen, Co Kildare.

“Our Daddy was wise, brave and loving and we thank him for the values that he lived by and instilled in us. He was our guiding star who put the principles of peace, social justice and equality first,” they said.

“From Edendork in county Tyrone to the Bog of Allen, Daddy was most at home with his beloved Annita and his family, surrounded by newspapers and grandchildren. We will miss him deeply.”

Born in 1939 and the eldest of 11 children, Mr Currie was from Coalisland in Co Tyrone. He was a student of history and politics at Queen’s University, Belfast, before going on to take a seat in Stormont at the tender age of 24 where he was as a Nationalist member for East Tyrone. He would co-found the SDLP in 1970.

Later in his career he became a Fine Gael TD for Dublin West in 1989, and came third in a run for the Irish Presidency the following year.

But it was his earlier involvement in Northern Ireland’s nascent civil rights movement that first propelled him into the limelight. Mr Currie became a lead organiser of the first march in August, 1968 following his occupation of a house in Caledon, Co Tyrone in protest of local council housing allocation discrimination.

The issue had long been a source of anger for nationalists – local councils, generally unionist-dominated, were reluctant to allocate housing to Catholics, a move that would directly affect their ability to vote.

“It was so blatant, we had to do something,” he told The Irish Times in an interview in 2018. “I had tried everything else. As a public representative, this injustice was rankling, and something had to be done.”

Not long afterwards, inspired by the American civil rights movement, Currie began to plan for similar agitation in Northern Ireland.

The first peaceful march, which went from Coalisland to Dungannon, was followed by a second in Derry in October where clashes broke out with baton-wielding members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).

Reflecting on that initial house occupation in an RTÉ interview some ten years later, he said “I knew that an impact had been made because this was the very first time that the so-called national news from London reported discrimination in housing in Northern Ireland.”

In total, his political career lasted 40 years across two jurisdictions. From his maiden political speech as a student in Belfast in 1962 (in which he attacked Unionist premier Lord Brookeborough), he would become a Stormont MP, a minister in the 1974 power-sharing executive, and a Fine Gael Minister of State for Children in the 1994-1997 coalition in the Republic.

He was married to his wife Annita for 53 years. They were described by his children as “a formidable team whose love for each other and their family saw them through some of the worst times in Northern Ireland’s recent history.”

Mr Currie is survived by his children Estelle, Caitríona, Dualta, Austin and Emer, their partners and 13 grandchildren. Funeral arrangements will be announced in due course.

  • Austin Currie had many Scottish friends and was a fellow member of the Humbert International Summer School in Ballina, Co Mayo, and Dublin.  Admired and loved by many, he made a significant contribution to politics North and South of the Irish border. Condolences to his family and friends. Bill Heaney, Editor, The Democrat

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