How Austin Currie’s 1968 housing protest ignited NI’s civil rights movement

Revisiting the issue 50 years on the SDLP co-founder reflects on current state of affairs

50 years after he ignited the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, MP Austin Currie goes back to the place where it all began. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

On the evening of June 20th, 1968, Austin Currie sent a letter of thanks to Mrs McKenna, of Kinnard Park, Caledon.

“I think today we have made history together,” he wrote.

Currie – then a Nationalist Party MP representing East Tyrone at the Northern Ireland Parliament in Stormont – had squatted in a house in the Tyrone village in a protest over discrimination in the allocation of housing.

Currie and two companions, Patsy Gildernew and Joe Campbell, broke in through a back window of No 9 with the assistance of a poker borrowed from Mrs McKenna.

“The three of us jointly held the poker and smashed the window,” he recalled.

Their action at Caledon did indeed make history. It was the beginning of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, which within months would see thousands of protestors on the North’s streets.

Today, Kinnard Park seems an unlikely setting for such a beginning. A well-kept estate of about 20 pebbledashed terraced houses just off the Caledon’s main street, in the 1960s they were newly built and in high demand in an area in which 269 applicants were waiting for a house.

It is decades since Currie has set foot in the village. It is just after noon as he walks into Kinnard Park. “It was about this time, 50 years ago,” he remarks, looking around. Outside No 9, he stops. “I wonder who lives here now?” he says.

He is recognised almost instantly. “Why are you raking over the stones?” shouts a woman who emerges from her front door to challenge him.

People in Caledon are “fed up”, she says. “What happened here, the people who live here now weren’t here then. We had nothing to do with it. My parents needed a house as well, and they couldn’t get it.”

Challenged by Currie, she acknowledges “it shouldn’t have happened”.

“That’s why I was there,” he says.

Source of anger

By 1968, discrimination over housing allocation had long been a source of anger for nationalists. Decisions were made by local councils, which tended to be unionist-dominated. The right to vote was linked to property ownership, so refusing to allocate houses to Catholic families limited their right to vote and helped, along with gerrymandering, to perpetuate unionist electoral dominance.

“Mr Currie? Yes, of course I know him,” says former policeman Michael Beattie, who now lives in Kinnard Park.

“It was terribly wrong,” he says. “What happened with the house, there was no way you could justify it in any language.

“But after that, when the Troubles started, and it went mad all over, this was the most normal place you could ever live because everybody, Protestant and Catholic, they lived together.

“I served all over Northern Ireland and this was the most sane place in the whole of the country and yet it started here.”

A campaign for the fair allocation of housing, led by husband and wife Conn and Patricia McCluskey, had been under way in the Dungannon area since 1963. They founded the Campaign for Social Justice which was the forerunner of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA).

Beattie recalls a Protestant man who was refused a house in Caledon because he wasn’t a member of the Unionist Party, and others who were not allocated because they did not shop in a particular business.

A few days before the Caledon protest a Catholic family, the Goodfellows, were evicted from No 11 Kinnard Park. Currie – later described by the Guardian newspaper as “a bright young Catholic MP with a flair for publicity” – made sure the media was there to witness it.

Strategy

His strategy was based on advice he received from the British Labour MP Paul Rose, who told him in January 1968 that the government would not take action unless forced to do so.

“He said, ‘put pressure on the Westminster government who can then put pressure on the unionists,’” says Currie.

No 9 – a three-bedroomed house next door to the Goodfellows – had been allocated to Emily Beattie (no relation to Michael). An unmarried 19-year-old, she worked for a solicitor who was a prospective unionist election candidate.

“It was so blatant, we had to do something,” says Currie. “I had tried everything else. As a public representative, this injustice was rankling, and something had to be done.”

With the media alerted, Currie, Campbell and Gildernew broke into the house. They barricaded the front door – and then waited.

“Joe Campbell said, ‘I hope we’re not left here overnight because I have to milk the cows.’ I said if we’re here overnight we might have a bit more trouble than that.” He meant from the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

For the first time, discrimination in housing was getting reported, which was the important thing

The situation was brought to a head with the arrival of Emily Beattie’s brother, who was a policeman.

“He demanded that we come out and I said no, and this was an injustice and this a non-violent protest,” says Currie.

Instead, Beattie knocked the front door down with a sledgehammer, and the protest was over. Currie was immediately interviewed – and that evening, Caledon made the national BBC news.

A young Austin Currie addresses the crowd at the Duke Street civil rights demonstration in Derry in 1968, with former Nationalist leader Eddie McAteer to his right. Photograph: Trevor McBride
A young Austin Currie addresses the crowd at the Duke Street civil rights demonstration in Derry in 1968, with former Nationalist leader Eddie McAteer to his right. Photograph: Trevor McBride

“For the first time, discrimination in housing was getting reported, which was the important thing,” says Currie.

Inspired by the American civil rights movement, within days meetings were taking place with NICRA, republicans and local councillors to discuss Currie’s proposal of a civil rights march in Northern Ireland.

Peaceful

The first march, from Coalisland to Dungannon that August, was peaceful despite a last-minute attempt to re-route; the second, in Derry on October 5th, 1968, was not.

Images of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) using batons and water cannons against the marchers on Duke Street – including the MP Gerry Fitt, who was shown on television with blood pouring from his head – were seen around the world.

“The police were stupid and RTÉ had a good cameraman,” says Currie. When the RUC charged, he put his head down.

“You can see on the RTÉ pictures my head going down, and I actually came through the police cordon, went around the back and came in through them again.

“Gerry [Fitt] made the best of it, of course, with the bloody shirt.”

After Duke Street, Currie reflects, it was “amazing” how quickly the marchers’ demands were granted.

Northern Ireland’s prime minister, Terence O’Neill, brought in points-based reforms to end housing discrimination, and an end to gerrymandering in Derry, though he did not grant “one man, one vote”. The concessions were regarded by some as too little, too late.

For Currie, the civil rights campaign was nothing less than “one of the most successful political action movements we’ve had in Ireland”, yet, even as their demands were being granted, the civil rights movement was being overtaken by increasing street violence.

The Battle of the Bogside in August 1969, internment two years later, and Bloody Sunday in January 1972 were followed by the suspension of Stormont and the reintroduction of direct rule from Westminster that March – something Currie hadn’t thought possible.

“In three or four years their government, their parliament, was all gone.

“It’s remarkable now when you think of it.

‘Tarnished’

“The people who tarnished it really were the Provos [Provisional IRA]. I don’t [see] any difference as far as I’m concerned between [Gerry] Adams and his crowd on one side and [Ian] Paisley and his crowd on the other, I think they’re almost equally, equally culpable.”

Two and a half thousand people lost their lives between 1974 and 1998, and for what? Not for what we have even now

Implacably opposed to violence, he has consistently been a fierce critic of the IRA, and he and his wife and their family home were the subject of numerous attacks by loyalist paramilitaries.

For Currie, it was an opportunity missed. He compares the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 – which was subsequently brought down by the Ulster Workers’ Council strike the following year – to the Belfast Agreement of 1998.

“In some respects, Sunningdale was far better as far as the nationalists were concerned. You had the North-South involvement and you had powersharing.

“Two and a half thousand people lost their lives between 1974 and 1998, and for what? Not for what we have even now.”

He names SDLP colleagues and friends murdered by loyalists in the years after – among them husband and wife James and Gertrude Devlin, shot dead in front of their 17-year-old daughter in 1974, and Denis Mullan, killed by the UVF on his front doorstep in 1975.

“We had 30 bloody years for nothing,” he says. “Think of the years that were lost.”

Today, Northern Ireland remains without a government – a situation Currie finds both disappointing and depressing.

The DUP and Sinn Féin are guilty of failing to lead, he says. Following the Belfast Agreement, “the SDLP allowed its clothes to be stolen, and [Tony] Blair and [Bertie] Ahern went too far and gave the Provos too much.

“Hume recognised that, but he said, and I agreed, that we had to have peace, it had to stop.”

‘Implacable’

Referring to Sinn Féin, he says that the “the best tribute to us is the people who were implacable opponents are now trying to take credit for what we did”.

After Caledon Currie became, in 1970, one of the founders of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). He moved to the Republic in 1989, where he was Fine Gael TD for Dublin West until 2002, but returns to Dungannon often to visit family.

“There is no killing, that’s the big advantage,” he says. “The terrible thing is that, if anything, sectarianism is worse.”

This makes him sad. “There isn’t a solution to Northern Ireland unless that problem is solved.”

Fifty years after Currie, Campbell and Gildernew raised Mrs McKenna’s poker aloft, Beattie says few people in Kinnard Park now remember the role Caledon played in history.

“Years ago, you’d have film crews coming from Germany and America, but back then you had people living here who could remember it.”

Younger families have moved in, the majority of whom, he says, “wouldn’t have a clue what you’re talking about” – which he agrees shows how things have changed.

“I think most of the people round here now don’t really know or care.”