Chronicle of a long crusade

 

Politics/All Hell Will Break Loose By Austin Currie: This is a book for those who believe in the values of courage and steadfastness in politics, and in the value of democratic politics as a force for peaceful change, writes Andy Pollak

Austin Currie's political career lasted 40 years in two jurisdictions: he made his first political speech as a Queen's University student in Belfast in 1962, attacking the then Unionist premier Lord Brookeborough for discrimination against Catholics in housing and jobs; he was a Stormont MP for the old Nationalist Party by the time he was 24; he was a founder-member of the SDLP and a minister in the 1974 power-sharing executive; in 1989, at Garret Fitzgerald's invitation, he fought and won a Dáil seat in Dublin West; he was a reluctant candidate for the presidency in the following year; he was Minister of State for Children in the 1994-1997 coalition, and lost his seat in the Fine Gael disaster of 2002.

The book's title comes from a speech he made in Stormont in June 1968, when he was expelled from the chamber for calling Unionist MP John Taylor a liar during an exchange about the allocation to a 19-year-old unmarried Protestant girl of a council house in the Co Tyrone village of Caledon ahead of 268 people, many of them poor Catholics with large families. As he stormed out, he shouted at the jeering Unionist benches: "All hell will break loose, and by God I will lead it". The following day, he squatted in the house allocated to the young woman, in an act of civil disobedience which most commentators see as the opening blow against a Stormont administration which was to collapse less than four years later.

Ironically, it was not to be Austin Currie who would lead the fight against Unionist domination and injustice, but the violent destroyers of the Provisional IRA. His career became that of the passionately non-violent democratic politician caught between two extremes. As a moderate but outspoken nationalist leader, but also a fierce critic of the IRA, he was hated and targeted by both loyalists and republicans. His home outside Dungannon was attacked more than 30 times: the most horrific of these attacks was in 1972 when, in his absence, two men forced their way into the house, assaulted his wife Annita physically and sexually, and carved "UVF" on to her breasts. It is not surprising that the book's first dedication is to his wife: she is clearly an extraordinarily courageous woman, whose reaction was to insist that he should not be intimidated out of politics by such attacks.

He also faced long periods of virtual unemployment in the late 1970s and 1980s, supported by the occasional research grant or EU contract while he continued to practise his trade as a politician without a seat or a salary during the most hopeless years of the Troubles. His stubborn independence of mind was best illustrated by his decision to run as an "Independent SDLP" candidate in the 1979 Westminster election in Fermanagh-South Tyrone because of the "agreed" nationalist's failure to condemn IRA atrocities. Séamus Mallon and Bríd Rodgers issued a statement saying there was no such thing as an "Independent SDLP" candidate, he resigned his party front-bench position, and duly came third in the contest.

However he remains unrepentant, declaring his pride at having been the standard-bearer for thousands of nationalists who were not prepared to be associated in any way with violence. His Southern political career was essentially an epilogue to the turbulent highs and terrifying lows of a quarter of a century spent in the Northern firing line.

This is not a book containing any great psychological insights, so there is no particular emphasis on the soul-searching that must have gone on before he gave up his long crusade for decent politics in the North to move to the relatively mundane world of a backbench TD. Like any left-of-centre Northerner moving south at the end of the 1980s, he was shocked at the poverty in the housing estates in his new constituency, while full of admiration for the voluntary groups who struggled against such deprivation.

His readiness to take on battles against the odds had one more outing, when Alan Dukes persuaded him, against his better judgement, to become a last minute runner for the Áras. He never stood a chance against the Mary Robinson juggernaut.

This matter-of-fact autobiography is not always an easy read. But then Austin Currie was never an easy man. Easiness is not what survival in the cauldron of Northern politics requires. It demands toughness, cuteness and a refusal to lie down and die, and he has all those qualities in spades. He deserves the contentment that retirement from a long, hard life in politics seems to have brought him. But maybe even politics is becoming easier: it is a wonderful irony that the only one of his children who has gone into her father's thankless profession is his daughter, Caitrióna, who sits on the local council in the charming and utterly peaceful middle English town of Tewkesbury.

Andy Pollak is Director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh and Dublin. He is a former Belfast reporter, Religious Affairs Correspondent and Education Correspondent with The Irish Times

All Hell Will Break Loose By Austin Currie O'Brien Press, 448pp. €24.95