Former MP Austin Currie hails success of NI's civil rights movement

Austin Currie played a key role in the first civil rights march. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire
By Michelle Devane and Cate McCurry, Press Association

THE civil rights movement in Northern Ireland was one of the most successful political exercises in Irish history, former MP Austin Currie has said.

Mr Currie, who played a key role in the first civil rights march, said it rivalled the campaign for Catholic emancipation in the 1820s that was spearheaded by the famous Irish political leader Daniel O'Connell.

He made the remarks on the 50th anniversary of the first march, which the Tyrone native helped organise from Coalisland to Dungannon on August 24 1968.

Prior to that first march, he said unionists had been in total control of Northern Ireland with a "permanent majority in parliament and in government".

"They had control of the political scene and the justice system and the voting system. They had everything they wanted."

The former nationalist MP for West Tyrone, and one of the founders of the SDLP, occupied a house in Caledon in protest at what he described as the discriminatory allocation of houses by the local council in 1968.

"I just felt it was unfair, unjust, intolerable and something had to be done and I did it," he said.

Mr Currie said he made the decision to organise the march after taking part in the protests against the housing situation, hoping the event would be similar to those witnessed in the southern states of the United States.

Two months later, another civil rights protest ended in violence when police clashed with protesters in Derry.

Austin Currye (centre) pictured with Patsy Gildernew and Joe Campbell at the Caledon 'sit-in'

Mr Currie said organisers had been disappointed with the numbers at the march, which had been banned, but it became one of the catalysts for the entire civil rights movement in the north.

"The RUC acted absolutely stupidly and in front of the television cameras, particularly RTÉ, they ran awry, they ran mad and it was on the television and was seen around the world and that really effectively gave the boost which became the very successful civil rights movement," he said.

The former TD for west Dublin said he regretted the loss of lives during the Troubles that ensued after the marches.

"It wasn't inevitable that it would happen," he said, insisting non-violence was at the heart of the civil rights movement.

"It was very unfortunate and was not inevitable. But I wish it hadn't happened," he said.

Mr Currie added: "The civil rights campaign was an extremely successful organisation and it actually changed the whole political scene as far as Northern Ireland was concerned and of course I don't regret that."

The former MP and TD criticised the powersharing impasse at Stormont.

He said it was a "totally hypocritical situation" that elected representatives were being paid when the Assembly was not sitting.

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