President leads tributes to ‘founding father’ of civil rights movement Austin Currie

Mr Currie was one of the founding members of the SDLP and a key figure at the beginning of Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement.
President leads tributes to ‘founding father’ of civil rights movement Austin Currie

By Jonathan McCambridge, PA

President Michael D Higgins has led tributes following the death of Austin Currie, one of the key figures in the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland.

“Ireland has lost a dedicated, sincere and very committed politician who made such a significant contribution to the lives of so many people throughout the island of Ireland during a varied and challenging political career,” the President said in a statement.

“He will remembered as a founding member of the SDLP and a courageous activist in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement at a critical time in our history.

“His outstanding service to the people of this country as an advocate and politician will stand as his proud legacy.

“It was a pleasure and privilege to have worked with him as a colleague in politics. He will be remembered as a public representative who gave outstanding service to people of the island of Ireland over so many decades.

“Sabina and I express our deepest sympathy to Annita, his children, grandchildren and his extended family and many friends. Síochán siorraí d’a anam.”

Mr Currie died in his sleep at his home in Derrymullen, Co Kildare, on Tuesday. He had recently celebrated his 82nd birthday.

Mr Currie, who also helped to found the nationalist SDLP party and was elected to parliament on both sides of the Irish border, was described by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar as “one of the outstanding politicians of his generation”.

Mr Currie was born in Co Tyrone, the eldest of 11 children.

His decision to squat at a council house in Caledon in June 1968 is widely seen as the beginning of the civil rights movement, which challenged inequality and discrimination against Catholics.

He went on to create the SDLP along with John Hume and Gerry Fitt in 1970.

In 1989, he won a seat in Dublin West for Fine Gael and pursued a career as TD and minister in the Republic until he retired in 2002.

Pat Hume funeral
Austin Currie during the funeral of Pat Hume (Liam McBurney/PA)

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

He added: “His housing protest in Caledon in 1968 was one of the key sparks for the civil rights campaign that followed, and he spoke for a generation of young nationalists when he refused to allow his constituents to be treated as second class citizens anymore.

“His radical activism led him to join together with other young leaders, and together they formed our party on the principles of a shared society where everyone got a fair shot at life, something so many of their contemporaries had been denied.

“Each time we lose a political giant like Austin we lose a piece of our history.

“While moments like this bring us great sadness, it also gives us the opportunity to celebrate the man and the huge contribution he made to politics in both the North and South of our island.”

Coronavirus – Mon Jun 28, 2021
Tanaiste Leo Varadkar said Austin Currie was ‘one of the outstanding politicians of his generation’ (Niall Carson/PA)

Mr Varadkar said: “I am deeply saddened to hear of the death of Austin Currie, and extend my sympathies to his family.

“A pioneer of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, Austin was one of the outstanding politicians of his generation, highlighting discrimination against nationalists in issues like housing with a famous sit-in protest at Caledon.

He added: “I knew Austin as a brave, courageous and principled man. He was blessed with extensive political insight and boundless humanity.

“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.”

Paddy Smith commemoration
Taoiseach Micheal Martin said Austin Currie was a ‘peacemaker’ (Brian Lawless/PA)

Taoiseach Micheal Martin described Mr Currie as a “peacemaker”.

Mr Martin tweeted: “Saddened to hear of the death of Austin Currie, one of the founding fathers of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland.

“He did so much for people, as a peacemaker and in politics, serving in the Dail and as Minister of State with distinction.

“My sympathies to his family.”

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney tweeted: “So sad to learn of the passing of Austin Currie.

“A man of extraordinary generosity & conviction, he campaigned for social justice, equality and peace all his life, North and South.”

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