Two thoughts on Austin Currie

18 Nov

Austin Currie died earlier in November and his passing has – rightly – been marked by respectful obituaries and a funeral attended by many of what might be called the Irish political establishment. Currie was a leader of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement and then had a prominent political career as a founding member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, a minister in the Northern Ireland parliament (before its collapse), and a member of the parliament in the Republic of Ireland. It was a very full political life, with lots of highs and lows.

Two thoughts struck me when thinking about his life and passing. The first is the inconsistency of many (political) lives, and the second is that so much energy is taken up at the intra-group level. Let me explain those two thoughts.

There is no doubting Austin Currie’s extraordinary bravery in the civil rights movement in the late 1960s. Inspired by events in the United States, he and others took direct action to expose the shocking levels of anti-Catholic discrimination prevalent in Northern Ireland. Perhaps his most famous piece of direction action was engaging in a squat or sit-in in a council house that had been awarded to an 18 year old Protestant women while 260 people – many of them Catholic families – were on a waiting list. All of the houses in that particular development – in Caledon, Co. Tyrone – went to Protestants. Currie and his fellow squatters showed immense bravery. It was a time when the police force showed little compunction in using violence against Catholics, and Currie and many other civil rights protestors were often assaulted by the police as they protested and marched in support of very basic rights.

But fast forward two decades and Currie moved south, based himself in Dublin, and stood for election for Fine Gael – one of the two main political parties in the Republic of Ireland. Even on a good day, a committee of experts would be hard pressed to know what Fine Gael stands for – other than keeping themselves in power and thereby perpetuating social injustice. It is – and was – a conservative political party. Over the decades, its prominent members made little effort to understand Catholics in Northern Ireland let alone deal with their plight. No one can blame Currie for moving south. He and his family were regular targets of violence and intimidation. The sheer constancy of the threats must have been exhausting. But to join Fine Gael – a party firmly in the rear-guard of just about every rights movement – serves as a good reminder that many people are inconsistent in their beliefs.

Certainly many people are consistent. Bernadette McAliskey – to mention a contemporary of Currie – has been consistent in her support for rights and minorities over many decades. But many people change over time. Support for causes may be an ‘age and stage’ thing. For many people, career, life, family and health may mean that they are only politically active for a short period of time. Staying the course takes a special type of commitment (or a lack of choice). A common expectation is to believe that political leaders – especially strident ones – will stay consistent over time. But to do so often incurs costs or requires very significant energy.

The second thought relates to intra-group conflict and tension. Austin Currie was consistent in one thing – he did not believe in violence. This brought him into conflict with those in the Catholic-nationalist-republican community who believed in violence and more forceful ways to attain rights and oppose British rule. Many in Currie’s home territory of east Tyrone saw Currie as a sell-out or too respectful of British rule. This was especially the case from the late 1980s onwards when Sinn Fein was in the ascendant. I remember being at a Tyrone senior football game (in Ennis, I think) and the announcer introduced Currie as a “special guest from Tyrone’. He was roundly boo-ed. The key point is that much of Currie’s energy (and this applies to all politicians in deeply-divided societies) was not devoted to inter-group contestation. Instead, it was directed at intra-group debates. Like the constant threats to his life (and that of his family) this must have been wearing. While engagement with “the other side” may not have taken place every day, the micro-geographies of deeply-divided societies means that one usually lives among those of your own identity group. As a result there would have been little escape from the immediacy of consultation or even confrontation with the in-group.

End of two thoughts


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