Not the most successful – the palm goes to John Hume – but in some ways Austin Currie was the best of them all. He was certainly the last of them, the six elected under different banners in the last election to the old Stormont in February 1969 to form the SDLP within a year. They formed the generally progressive, moderately nationalist and unambiguously democratic potential partner with which the bulk of unionism refused to deal before the relentless rise of violence cut the feet from under attempts to reform and achieve a new political balance.
It is very hard for this generation to recapture the pressures people like Currie in the front line of politics were under at the time. He and his family at home later suffered a constant spate of horrific sectarian attacks. As Andy Pollak recalled in a review of his memoirs:
His home outside Dungannon was attacked more than 30 times: the most horrific of these attacks was in 1972 when, in his absence, two men forced their way into the house, assaulted his wife Annita physically and sexually, and carved “UVF” on her breasts.
It still boggles the mind to reflect that the utterly reasonable demand for the fair allocation of housing which produced the Caledon squat he led in 1968 was enough to ignite the collapse that followed.
Although a passionate believer in direct action to achieve civil rights in the late 1960s, he remained committed to the parliamentary process. He was a reluctant withdrawer from Stormont after the army shot dead two unarmed Derry men in July 1971, weeks before internment. In the hunger strike election of April 1981 the SDLP withdrew Currie from the ballot at the last minute, much to his chagrin. The result, electing Bobby Sands and following his death his former agent Owen Carron, proved to be the foundation of Sinn Fein’s “ballot and armalite” strategy. Currie remained at odds with any suggestion of tempering his opposition to IRA violence and stood as an independent SDLP candidate in the 1979 general election.
In what proved to be the false dawn of the power sharing Executive of 1974, he became a vigorous minister of housing and local government, with a brief to try to contain growing sectarian tensions.
In BBC NI, a few weeks before the UWC strike, in the novel role of minister, no longer just a campaigner, Currie took part in a Spotlight programme featuring opposing sides from Ardoyne and Glenbryns in North Belfast. Much was at stake. A repeat of the 1971 burning of Farringdon Gardens or worse was feared. The TV debate between rival “community workers” who had never met had been all too predictably grumpy, confused and ominous. Afterwards we adjourned to the hospitality room for the post mortem. An embarrassed silence prevailed. Austin suddenly asked me: “have you got any whiskey?” “Surely”, I said taking out a couple of bottles… He placed them in the middle of the table and addressed the rivals. “Right, everything said now is off the record” and handed round his private number as minister of Housing. He then proceeded to charm and cajole them in scaling down their anger and agreeing to keep in touch.
Austin’s career was inevitably blighted by the long absence of stable institutions in the North. For years John Hume bagged to only available salary, as an elected MEP.
His later career in the south proved to be an anti climax. Elected in 1989 as a Fine Gael TD for Dublin West he suffered perhaps the inevitable fate of a northerner failing to achieve his potential in government and coming a poor third as a reluctant candidate for the presidency in 1990.
But what a charismatic young man Austin Currie was when first elected in 1964 at the age of 24.And what courage he displayed in the worst of times.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London