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Joseph (Austin) Currie, BA (died 9 November 2021, aged 82)


Obituary taken from The Guardian: Austin Currie obituary | Northern Ireland | The Guardian


Austin Currie, who has died aged 82, became the poster boy of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement in June 1968 when he squatted in a house in Caledon, in his home county of Tyrone. This was in protest at its allocation to a Protestant woman, the secretary to a local Unionist politician, despite there being 250 people on the housing waiting list, and many Catholic families living in overcrowded conditions.


The episode was a touchstone moment in the Northern Ireland civil rights struggle, and in the years that followed Currie went on to become the first person to be elected to both Irish parliaments – in Belfast and Dublin – serving as a minister in both.


At the time of the Caledon squat, council housing decisions in Northern Ireland were made by local councillors, most of whom were Protestants. Indeed, Currie, then aged 28 and the eldest of 11 children, had his own moving story of his Catholic family’s problems finding a landlord in rural, border and bitterly sectarian Tyrone. His passionate style, along with his striking looks, added to his appeal for the international media – as did the clear justice of his case.


Currie, with other civil rights activists, was in the Caledon house only hours before the police ousted them, but the photographs of his defiant stand became a recurrent image of the civil rights movement.


It was the kind of publicity that caught the attention of the Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, in London, making it impossible for his government to ignore discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland. Just over a year later, in August 1969, Wilson sent in the troops.


Born in Coalisland, Co Tyrone, Austin was the son of Mary (nee O’Donnell) and John Currie. He was educated at the renowned St Patrick’s Academy, Dungannon, and graduated in politics and history from Queen’s University Belfast. Crucially, he was one of a group of young Northern Ireland Catholic activists – John Hume from Derry was another – who had benefited from the wider educational reforms initiated across the UK after the Second World War, and wanted job equality to match their new qualifications. Most were nationalists, but had rejected republican violence as a way of reuniting Ireland.


Currie first made his mark in 1964 when he was elected to the then Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont as the Nationalist Party MP for East Tyrone. He was the youngest person ever to gain a seat in the institution. In 1970, with his fellow Nationalist Eddie McGrady and other Catholic politicians, he became a co-founder of the Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP), with Gerry Fitt as leader and Hume as deputy.


Currie held his Stormont seat until 1972, when, at Westminster, the Conservative prime minister Edward Heath was forced by the rising tide of violence in the province to suspend the Stormont parliament and the Unionist government of Brian Faulkner, and impose direct rule from London.


The following year, the SDLP – with Currie in its negotiating team – agreed at the talks in Sunningdale, Berkshire, to set up a power-sharing executive with Faulkner’s Unionists. As befitted an erstwhile squatter, Currie became minister for housing, local government and planning, though his position – and the executive – collapsed in 1974 as a result of the loyalist workers’ strike.


After Sunningdale, the violence in Northern Ireland intensified still further. Currie’s home came under repeated attack from loyalists, and also from the Provisional IRA, angered by his condemnation of their tactics. His wife, Annita (nee Lynch), whom he had married in 1968, was threatened and one of his RUC guards shot dead.


A turbulent and ambitious character, Currie also became embroiled in rows within the SDLP over deals with other Catholic politicians to avoid splitting the Catholic vote. The population of Fermanagh and South Tyrone was evenly balanced between Catholics and Protestants, and seats regularly fell to Unionist politicians when the Catholic vote was divided between rival candidates.


In 1979, Hume, by now the SDLP leader, decided not to run a candidate for the Westminster elections; Currie, with some justice, accused him of making secretive, solitary decisions, and stood unsuccessfully as an Independent SDLP candidate.


In 1981 the situation became further complicated by the by-election victory of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands as Sinn Féin MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Sands lived on for 23 days, after which his agent, Owen Carron, stood in the by-election caused by his death. The SDLP had completely misread Catholic sympathy for the hunger strikers, and to win back popular support on the ground decided not to stand against Carron. Currie was furious.


Another running sore was his lack of political income. After the suspension of the old Stormont parliament, Westminster stopped paying salaries to Northern Ireland’s MPs – though they continued to act as local representatives and were politically active in the search for a solution to the violence. The situation infuriated the Dublin government, which sought discreet ways to provide employment for the SDLP MPs, just as northern Protestant businessmen provided for the Unionists. Currie was found a job through a cement company, though it was just a way of keeping him politically afloat to fight another day.


Although he still had ambitions within Northern Ireland, in 1989 Currie moved to Dublin, joined the Fine Gael party and stood successfully as a TD, a member of the Dáil, for Dublin West, becoming the first person to be elected to both Stormont and the Irish parliament, in which he was followed by Gerry Adams for Sinn Féin.

In 1990 he stood as his party’s candidate for the Irish presidency, only to be roundly defeated by the Labour party’s nominee, 
Mary Robinson, and in 1994 Fine Gael entered a coalition with Labour and the Democratic Left and returned to power as the Rainbow Alliance, with John Bruton as Taoiseach. Currie served for three years as a junior minister, a minister of state, with responsibility for children.


But when the party was heavily defeated in 2002, Currie lost his Dáil seat and announced his retirement – to “grow potatoes” in Co Kildare and watch Tyrone’s Gaelic football team from afar. He had continued to stay in contact with the SDLP, the Labour party and Fine Gael throughout the negotiations that led to the peace settlement in Northern Ireland in 2000, but as a wise elder rather than a main player.


His autobiography, All Hell Will Break Loose (2004), contained vivid recollections of the civil rights days and of his involvement, once Hume’s initial secret peace deal was done, as one of the four SDLP negotiators with the Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams in the late 1990s.


Currie is survived by Annita and their children, Estelle, Caitriona, Dualta, Austin and Emer.


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