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

Former FG minister died peacefully in his sleep at home in Co Kildare, family says

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

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

 

Austin Currie, the SDLP co-founder, civil rights leader and former Fine Gael minister, has died aged 82.

In a statement, his family said they were heartbroken after 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.

President Michael D Higgins described Mr Currie as a “dedicated, sincere and very committed politician” who had made a significant contribution to the lives of many throughout the island of Ireland.

“His outstanding service to the people of this country as an advocate and politician will stand as his proud legacy. It was pleasure and privilege to have worked with him as a colleague in politics,” he said.

Born in Co Tyrone in 1939, Mr Currie was the eldest of 11 children. He studied history and politics at Queen’s University, Belfast, before going on aged 24 to take a seat in Stormont, where he was as a Nationalist member for East Tyrone. He co-founded the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) in 1970.

Later in his career, Mr Currie became a Fine Gael TD for Dublin West in 1989, and finished third in the 1990 presidential election.

It was his involvement in Northern Ireland’s nascent civil rights movement that propelled him into the limelight. He was a lead organiser of the first march in August 1968, which followed his occupation of a house in Caledon, Co Tyrone, in protest at discrimination in local council housing allocations.

The issue had long been a source of anger for nationalists, as councils were generally unionist-dominated and 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 2018.

Similar agitation

Inspired by the American civil rights movement, Mr 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, where clashes broke out with baton-wielding members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).

In a 40-year political career, which began with a maiden speech attacking unionist premier Lord Brookeborough when he was a student in 1962, he would become a Stormont MP, a minister in the 1974 power-sharing executive, and a Fine Gael minister of State from 1994 to 1997.

He was married to Annita for 53 years and his children described them 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”.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said Mr Currie “did so much for people, as a peacemaker and in politics, serving in the Dáil and as minister of State with distinction.”

Tánaiste and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar described Mr Currie as a “pioneer of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland”.

“Above all, he cared most about bringing peace to this island by peaceful means, something he worked towards throughout his political career, and was vehemently opposed to political violence.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Mr Currie was a “titan of the civil rights movement”.

“He refused to allow his constituents to be treated as second-class citizens any more.”

Mr Currie is survived by his children Estelle, Caitríona, Dualta, Austin and Emer, a Senator; their partners, and 13 grandchildren.