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Opinion: Austin Currie - peacemaker, parliamentarian and titan of the civil rights movement

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood pays tribute to the late politician and civil rights campaigner, who will be buried today.

Colum Eastwood

WITHOUT PEOPLE LIKE Austin Currie, the North would be a very different place today. When Austin was growing up, he enjoyed few of the freedoms and privileges that our community now takes for granted. Prior to the civil rights movement, everything was a struggle for the nationalist community.

Living in massively overcrowded housing was the norm, it was an uphill struggle to secure a decent education, the best jobs were off-limits, and poverty was rife.

Things changed when a generation of nationalists was able to access university education; their best weapon against tyranny was their minds. These young people were all too aware of the rife injustice their community were being subjected to, and it soon became clear they would have to do something about it.

Standing up

For Austin Currie, that moment came at Caledon in June 1968. He had become the Nationalist Party MP for East Tyrone at the old Stormont Parliament and learned first-hand how difficult it was to change things within that sectarian system.

When a Catholic family was evicted from their home in favour of a single Protestant woman, something within him said ‘no more’. He occupied the house and lit the spark that started the civil rights movement and changed this place forever.

When it became clear that a new political party was necessary to deliver civil rights for all, Austin joined with John Hume and others to form our party on the principles of a shared society and giving everyone a fair chance in life.

socialist-democratic-labour-party-leaders-left-to-right-austin-currie-gerry-fitt-john-hume-and-paddy-devlin-during-the-meeting-at-cappagh Socialist Democratic Labour Party leaders, (left to right) Austin Currie, Gerry Fitt, John Hume and Paddy Devlin, during the meeting at Cappagh in 1973. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

As a party born from the fight for civil rights in Ireland, our founders took inspiration from the civil rights movement in the United States. To this day, we are bonded together across the ocean in solidarity as the new generation of black men and women inherit the torch from those who struggled before them, taking on the mantra of John Lewis and “Getting in good trouble. Necessary trouble.”

It must be the mission of the new generation of political and civic leaders everywhere to dismantle the structures of racist hate, discrimination and inequality that permeate our societies.

Echoes of the past

It is often overlooked how much Austin and his fellow civil rights campaigners achieved through democratic and peaceful means before the outbreak of violence engulfed the North.

They are a shining example of what a group of determined people can do with little resources, and it is a pity that others took so long to follow their lead.

In a short time, the old rotten Stormont institutions fell. We had genuine power-sharing with Austin continuing his long-held passion for improving housing conditions by eventually taking over that ministry.

He is the only person to serve in government in both the North and South of our island, a unique distinction. No matter what party he represented, he always remained an integral part of the SDLP family and was a regular attendee at party conferences and functions.

In the face of violence, Austin stood up for the majority who faced unfair odds against the establishment. Today we must continue in that vein and remain ever vigilant against those who will ride roughshod over democracy, including the British government implementing a hard-Brexit.

Over the past few weeks, our news has been dominated by talk of Brexit, the threatening of institutions in the North and the British government continuing to use the Protocol for their own political ends, the consequences of which are manifesting as violence in parts of the North.

With the British government blindly following their hard-Brexit agenda against the repeated expressed wishes of people in the North, we must follow suit with Austin, stand firm and fight for what is right.

ulster-mps-continuing-their-hunger-strike-in-downing-street-left-to-right-john-hume-bernadette-devlin-frank-mcmanus-and-austin-currie Ulster MPs continuing their hunger strike in Downing Street, left to right: John Hume, Bernadette Devlin, Frank McManus and Austin Currie. 21 October 1971 Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Like many civil rights leaders, Austin and his family paid a high cost for his bravery. His house was regularly attacked by so-called loyalists and republicans, and in one incident, his wife Annita was subjected to a horrific assault.

Despite this ordeal, his commitment to peace and standing up for what is right never wavered; he was not deterred. His contribution to politics right across our island will never be forgotten. When things got difficult, he stuck it out, stayed the course and changed people’s lives for the better on both sides of the border.

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Righteous indignation

Austin Currie was a leader at a time when leaders were required, and he showed how one small act of defiance from a man or woman with a voice and righteous indignation could transform the lives of an entire community.

Whilst the challenges have changed since 1968, the new generation of modern, progressive leaders take their lead from Austin, John Hume and their comrades. 

embargoed-to-0001-friday-august-24-austin-currie-former-mp-td-and-irish-minister-during-an-interview-ahead-of-the-50th-anniversary-of-the-first-civil-rights-march-in-northern-ireland Currie ahead of the 50th anniversary of the first Civil Rights march in Northern Ireland August 2018. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Greta Thunberg, leaders of the Black Lives Matter Movement and others, are leading the way to fight for a just, fair, equitable and sustainable future for everyone – be that protecting the planet against the climate emergency, facing down discrimination against Black, Asian and ethnic minorities and fighting against injustice.

The lifeblood that flows through these people-powered movements is the same that flowed through our Civil Rights movement in Ireland.

As Austin knew in 1968, protesting was not going to be enough. We must work and endeavour every single day against injustice, racism, discrimination, and unfairness to change our society for the better.

When our history of democratic and non-violent struggle against oppression is written, Austin Currie’s efforts will begin the first line. 

Colum Eastwood is MP for Foyle and leader of the SDLP. Find him on Twitter.

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