Dáil debates

Tuesday, 21 June 2022

Death of Former Member: Expressions of Sympathy


3:45 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I ask Members to join me in welcoming here today the family of the late Austin Currie, who died in November of last year. We welcome Austin's wife, Anita, and his children, Estelle, Caitríona, Dualta, Austin and our own colleague in the Oireachtas, Senator Emer Currie, along with Austin's grandchildren and other extended family members.

I note that we are also joined by a distinguished former Taoiseach. He is very welcome.

Members do not need me to remind them of Austin Currie's immense contribution to political life on this island. The courage he displayed in his life, his tenacity, and his belief in the principles of equality and justice are an example to us all today. As a founding member of the SDLP, Austin Currie helped to change the course of history. He made an immense contribution to achieving peace on this island and his life was dedicated to the service of other people. He was, in truth, a leader and a statesman. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

As tradition requires, I now call on the Tánaiste, as his party leader, to begin the tributes to Austin.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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In the past two and a half years, we have lost three giants of the civil rights movement in Ireland, namely, Seamus Mallon, John Hume and Austin Currie. They were three of the great pioneers of peace, change and non-violence on our island. Their legacy lives on all around us.

Today, it is my honour to pay tribute to someone whom I had the honour of getting to know when I first became interested in politics. He inspired me then and he continues to inspire me today. For me and many of us in Fine Gael, Austin Currie was one of the most outstanding politicians of his generation, a person of incredible personal courage, political insight and humanity. He was my local Deputy when I first got involved in Fine Gael and it was a strange experience to see someone who was almost an historical figure attending my local branch meetings above my local pub. I will always be grateful to him for encouraging me in my early years in politics when plenty of others did not. I learned a great deal from him, and it later became my great honour to represent the people of Dublin West, a constituency that he served with distinction for over a decade. Today, I serve the families and individuals of Dublin West alongside his daughter, Senator Emer Currie, and I see in her the same passion for justice and determination to help others. I also see in her the total absence of cynicism, which is rare in politics.

Other speakers will pay tribute to Austin's remarkable achievements as a civil rights leader, how he exposed and highlighted discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland, especially in terms of issues like housing, how he organised one of the first civil rights marches in Northern Ireland and went on to co-found the SDLP with John Hume and Gerry Fitt, and how he was a politician of remarkable physical and moral courage who refused to stay silent even when people tried to intimidate and silence him and when he was threatened and attacked.

To understand him, one has to understand his unshakeable commitment to peace and democracy. Although he and his family, some of whom are present, were subjected to violence, they never once contemplated resorting to it. He always stayed true to his belief – shared with John Hume - that two wrongs could never make a right. Like Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi, he knew that a people could be liberated without any need for recourse to violence, sectarianism or hatred.

When Austin died, many of the tributes understandably focused on the earlier part of his career in Northern Ireland. His time as a Deputy and a Minister of State in this State was almost viewed as a postscript, a less interesting part of his life when he took up different causes and issues. To me, however, it was a continuum of a single cause - a fight for human rights, dignity and justice for people, North and South. By remembering Austin's later career, we see the full extent of his patriotism, his courage and his contribution to our country. So, today I want to say something about his career as a Deputy and a Minister of State, a remarkable period when we saw the exact same political insight, courage and humanity on display.

In the 1990s, which was in our lifetime, there were dark parts of Irish society that we did not like to be open about or talk about, issues that we tried to ignore and pretend did not exist or just did not know how to deal with, for example, child abuse.

He showed the same courage and moral clarity in fighting these wrongs and in fighting for the rights of children as he showed when fighting for the rights of Catholics in Northern Ireland. He was appointed a Minister of State by former Taoiseach John Bruton. He as the very first Minister of State with specific responsibility for children in the history of the State. This has developed into a full Cabinet Ministry, held by my constituency colleague, Deputy O'Gorman, but this was when that role was created. It spanned three Departments: the Department of Health; the Department of Education; and the Department of Justice. His experience of how politics worked – and often did not work – made an immediate impact. One of the first things he discovered was that many of the civil servants working on different aspects of policies relating to children did not know each other, so he introduced regular meetings, bringing them together and ensuring that for the first time there was a co-ordinated approach to national childcare policy. Austin was the first Minister of State to call for the creation of a children’s ombudsman, which was built upon by the next Government when that office was established in 2002.

Austin showed real bravery in tackling the issue of child abuse and in trying to find real solutions. For example, he wanted to introduce mandatory reporting of child abuse and started a debate about how that policy might work. It took 20 years, but it happened during Enda Kenny’s first Government. When Ireland held the Presidency of the EU in 1996, Austin used that platform to speak out against organised paedophile networks worldwide and about how countries needed to work together to fight it. Austin was ahead of his time in many ways, including when it came to identifying future threats to children, such as the Internet. This was in the days when email and the Internet were new concepts. Austin represented the EU at the first World Congress Against Sexual Exploitation and spoke passionately about the dangers posed by the growing popularity of the Internet and how it was being used to transmit images of children and promote child sex abuse. He lost none of his oratorical skills, and his contribution made a considerable impression and helped influence governments across the world.

To give a small flavour of Austin's achievements , he spoke in the Dáil about child sex tourism and brought forward amendments to legislation against it. He worked to modernise Ireland’s adoption policies, provide more money for families in the family resource centres, increase the fostering allowance for teenagers and fight child homelessness. He also worked to improve childcare services and services for young offenders. Furthermore, he worked with others to establish a specialist unit to deal with family violence. As is the case now, there were not many votes in these things but a lot of good was done. When he died, Niamh Bhreathnach, the former Labour Deputy, who was Minister for Education in the rainbow Government, wrote a generous letter to The Irish Times, crediting Austin with the work he had done behind the scenes in the area of special education. Austin was driven by ideas and his belief in people. Thanks to his courage and determination, we live in a better Ireland today.

3:55 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Is mór an onóir domsa é, mar Thaoiseach, a bheith in ann m'ómós agus ómós mo pháirtí a chur in iúl maidir le Austin Currie. Níl aon amhras ann ach gur fear agus polaiteoir den scoth a bhí ann. D’oibrigh sé go dian dícheallach, Domhnach is dálach, ar son muintir na tíre, sa Tuaisceart agus sa Deisceart araon. Caithfimid machnamh a dhéanamh ar an dlúth-ról a bhí ag Austin Currie i ngluaiseacht cearta sibhialta an Tuaiscirt. Bhí léargas faoi leith aige ar an oileán iomlán agus bhí tuiscint faoi leith aige ar gach gné den pholaitíocht.

It is a great honour for me to pay tribute in this House to the life and political contribution of Austin Currie in the presence of his family. Austin was a colleague in this House for more than a decade, and served the State with honour and integrity in the Departments of Education, Justice and Health. As I said in the aftermath of his death, on that basis alone he would be deserving of national recognition and respect but Austin Currie’s contribution to Irish politics and Irish life was much more consequential than his service to this House or to Government. Austin Currie was a major figure among that singular generation of Northern leaders. He was one of a group of extraordinary individuals, from ordinary backgrounds, who were forced by the degradations of the Northern state at that time to confront this appalling injustice. They recognised the power of peaceful protest and they understood that social and economic justice and progress would only be secured through the force of argument. His protest on housing rights in Caledon is widely recognised as the beginning of the civil rights movement. Then, along with those other great names, Hume, Cooper, Fitt, Devlin and O’Hanlon, and others, he founded the SDLP and developed the fundamental political philosophy that ultimately became the basis of peace and power-sharing across the board. We can imagine with complete confidence his impatience and dismay with the ongoing refusal to honour the mandate of the recent assembly elections and bring back the institutions.

Alongside his intellectual capacity, Austin Currie was a man of real and significant physical courage. More than 30 times his family home was attacked by loyalists and so-called republicans and, yet, along with his colleagues, he persisted. As I said at the time of his death, and I repeat today, our country owes him a great debt for this persistence. Many people are alive today and raising families of their own because of this persistence and we have peace in our country because of this persistence.

Austin's contribution to this Dáil and to Government have been well articulated by the Tánaiste but his role as Minister of State with responsibility for children's rights is particularly significant because it was the commencement of an evolution that has placed children and childcare policy that is more reflective of children at the Cabinet table. That took place over a period, with additional powers and responsibilities being given to successive Ministers and Ministers of State with responsibility for children. Austin began that process and was particularly focused on protecting children from all forms of abuse. That is something for which we also him a debt of gratitude.

Outside politics, Austin’s great passion and love was his family, namely, Anita, Estelle, Caitríona, Dualta, Austin Óg and our colleague, Senator Emer Currie. All of his grandchildren have come in today for this important moment. They are welcome to this House. It is important that we pay tribute to Austin Currie in the context of his contribution to this House and to politics in the Republic and on the island as a whole. I know that his family will continue to miss him every day. I hope that as they listen to the heartfelt tributes from colleagues across the House this afternoon, they will get some comfort from the huge and enormous respect in which Austin Currie was held and that they feel pride in the profound contribution he made to our country. Their husband, father and brother was one of those who truly made Ireland a better place. Ar Dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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On behalf of the Green Party, I join Members on all sides of the House in expressing my condolences to the family of Austin Currie, namely, his wife, Anita, their children, Estelle, Caitríona, Dualta, Austin Óg and our colleague, Senator Emer Currie. Very few people will equal, in one lifetime, the positive impact that Austin Currie had on politics on this island. As the Minister with responsibility for equality, I have always been inspired by Austin's lifelong dedication to achieving equal civil rights for those so profoundly discriminated against in Northern Ireland.

Underpinning all of this was a deep conviction that justice should prevail through peaceful and democratic means and that courage was needed to act on this conviction in a climate of violence, intimidation and hatred, often against him, his immediate family and his political peers. That courage and conviction could be seen in the political tasks Austin turned his ambition towards, which were always peacebuilding projects. He brought real political skill and dignity to both his elected and appointed political roles in: the old Northern Ireland Parliament; the short-lived 1973 Assembly and Executive; the New Ireland Forum; and as Deputy for Dublin West, my constituency, for 13 years. Austin's active political career ended before mine began so I would not have known him terribly well but I recall in May 2019 in the convention centre in City West him walking around with unalloyed pride as Emer was elected to Fingal County Council on her first attempt.

A number of weeks ago, I met Senator Currie and Anita in the car park and Anita gave me a concise history of the foundation of the SDLP in her and Austin's front room. She talked about a small number of people going over the political programme and of how she took down the constitution on their typewriter. It is amazing to think of the legacy that comes from such small and intimate gatherings and of the political movement created within that sitting room. That dignified legacy of Austin's stands as a credit to him, his family and his former SDLP and Fine Gael colleagues and it should serve to inspire all of us in this Chamber and everyone still engaged in the process of peacebuilding in Northern Ireland.

4:05 pm

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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Austin Currie, through his long political career, was an influential Irish public figure. As a leading member of the early civil rights campaign, co-founder of the SDLP, Minister in the short-lived 1974 power-sharing Executive in the North and Fine Gael Minister of State, Austin had a long and distinguished record of public service.

He first served in the old Stormont Parliament for East Tyrone from 1964 to 1972, representing first the Nationalist Party and later the SDLP. Austin was among a class of young nationalists in the North who had benefitted from educational reform after the Second World War and sought job equality not alone for themselves but for everybody. In 1964, when he was elected to the old Stormont, he was the youngest person ever to gain a seat in that institution. He was one of the organisers of the first civil rights march in August 1968, which followed the occupation of a house in Caledon, County Tyrone in protest at discrimination in local council housing allocations. Austin was in the Caledon house just hours before the police ousted him and others, such as Patsy Gildernew and Joe Campbell. The photograph of him there became a recurrent and iconic image in media coverage of the civil rights movement.

He once eloquently described the effect of partition on the nationalist community in the North:

Partition was used to try to cut us off from the rest of the Irish nation. Unionists did their best to stamp out our nationalism and, the educational system, to the extent it could...was oriented to Britain and we were not even allowed to use names such as Séamus or Seán. When my brothers' godparents went to register their birth, they were told no such names as Séamus or Seán existed in Northern Ireland and were asked for the English equivalent.

Later in his career, Mr. Currie became a Fine Gael Deputy for Dublin West in 1989 and finished a creditable third in the 1990 presidential election. He was the first person to be elected to parliaments in Belfast and Dublin, and served as a Minister in both. He was the first ever Minister in an Irish Government with dedicated responsibility for children.

Austin Currie long harboured doubts about the commitment of many politicians in the South to the plight of nationalists in the North, many of whom demonstrated absolute indifference. In his 2004 autobiography, All Hell Will Break Loose, he wrote about his experience of running in that presidential election and the prejudice he faced as a northern nationalist from those within the political system here who harboured deeply partitionist attitudes. He wrote: "What annoyed, indeed angered me most was the suggestion that because I came from the North, I was not a real Irishman."

Following the deaths of Seamus Mallon and John Hume in January and August 2020 respectively, Austin was the last surviving founder of the SDLP. Whether as a representative of the SDLP or Fine Gael, Austin was often a spirited and determined opponent of my party and we of his politics, but that is the nature of politics. Today as we reflect on his very considerable life and political career, we pay tribute to his service to his constituents and his country. On my behalf and that of Sinn Féin, I express our condolences to his wife Anita, his family, his children, his grandchildren, all his friends and to his political colleagues in the SDLP, Fine Gael and beyond. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
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I am glad to speak for the Labour Party to pay tribute to Austin Currie. As a politician and civil rights campaigner, he leaves a tremendous legacy and had the extraordinary achievement of serving as Minister in both jurisdictions on this island. Reviewing the remarkable journey of Austin Currie's life and his strong legacy on peace and integration, one can only imagine what it must have been like for him at such a young age - 24 - to take a seat in the then unreformed Stormont Parliament, having won the 1964 by-election in East Tyrone. I cannot imagine what that was like. It was a time when there was blatant discrimination, including structural discrimination, against Catholics in Northern Ireland, particularly in the allocation of public housing, an issue that was to have a huge influence on his politics and his campaigning work.

In 1968, the well-documented sit-in at the new council estate in Caledon shone a light for Austin Currie and all on the island on what was happening across Northern Ireland and brought much-increased public attention to the discrimination faced by Catholics and the political situation there. Speaking on the issue beforehand in Stormont, Austin Currie said those famous words, that all hell would break loose. They were prescient words because the fallout from that protest and that political context led to the formation of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement. Following that, as we saw, unfortunately, the terrible violence of the Troubles erupted and Austin went on to form the SDLP along with his colleagues Seamus Mallon, Gerry Fitt and John and Pat Hume. Like them, he was a man of peace who abhorred the violence of the Troubles and remained committed to non-violence, despite the enormous toll it took on his own family, with constant threats and over 30 attacks on his family home and family members, including on his beloved wife Anita.

These things led him to move his family, ultimately, and take refuge in this jurisdiction, where he served as a Teachta Dála for many years and was to serve as Minister of State with responsibility for children in the rainbow coalition between 1994 and 1997. The Tánaiste has remarked how Niamh Breathnach, Labour Minister for Education in that coalition, paid tribute to his work on the rights of children. Another colleague of mine, former Labour leader Joan Burton, was a constituency colleague of Austin and shared with me the anecdote that when he first came to run for Fine Gael in Dublin West, Vincent Browne asked him about his knowledge of the geography of the constituency at a time when he would not have been an expert on that, to put it politely. Once elected, as Joan acknowledges, he became an expert on the highways and byways of Dublin West and developed a detailed mastery of constituency issues, remaining a Teachta Dála until 2002. As a Fine Gael candidate in the 1990 presidential election, he was extraordinarily generous to our successful Labour candidate, Mary Robinson, recommending transfers to her unstintingly right up until polling day. We remember him for that too.

I pay tribute on behalf of Labour to Austin's family, to Anita and his children, Estelle, Caitríona, Dualta, Austin óg and Emer, our Oireachtas colleague. I think I am the only Member here who has had the pleasure of serving with Emer, which I did in the Seanad until my by-election last summer. It was a pleasure to serve with her in the Upper House and to continue to work with her on the WorkEqual campaign and other campaigns in which we share a common interest. I express my condolences and those of Labour to the extended family, Austin's grandchildren, siblings, relatives and friends. May Austin rest in peace, knowing that his efforts helped to bring peace and reconciliation across this island.

4:15 pm

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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On behalf of the Social Democrats, I welcome the Currie family and again express our sympathy on their loss. When facing up against the weight of systemic oppression, it is easy to feel as if any action you take is futile and that the personal risk always outweighs the reward but Austin Currie provides a really good example of how a seemingly small action can light a spark and lead to something much bigger. By smashing a window in a council house in Caledon in County Tyrone in June 1968 and occupying that house for just a short few hours, the 28-year-old Austin Currie changed history by giving people a very tangible understanding of the discrimination being experienced. For the first time, housing discrimination against Catholics was being reported and broadcast on the evening news across Ireland and in the UK. His protest was not the first act of civil disobedience and it was far from the last but it lit a spark in the beginning of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. He built on this momentum to lead the first non-sectarian civil rights marches in Northern Ireland, taking direct inspiration from the American civil rights movement. From there, he went on to become a co-founder of the SDLP and became well known for speaking truth to power at a time when that was not only unpopular, but dangerous. His life was under constant threat throughout his political life in Northern Ireland, as were the lives of his family. As we have heard from several others, there were 30 attacks on his home. Shots were fired through the windows, bombs were left outside the front door, threats were constantly made and his wife, Annita, was brutally attacked. Despite the danger and violence, Austin Currie, supported by his family, remained absolutely opposed to all forms of political violence and firmly committed to achieving peace on this island by peaceful means. He was tireless in his commitment to peace and justice, which is illustrated well by the famous words he delivered at Stormont right before the housing protest in 1968, "All Hell will break loose and by God I will lead it'". It made a remarkable difference in a very tangible way. I reiterate our sympathies to the Currie family.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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On behalf of the Rural Independent Group, I too am pleased to be able to say a few words and to welcome Austin Currie's wife, Annita, his children, Estelle, Caitríona, Dualta, Austin and Emer, and the former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. Austin Currie was one of the leading figures in the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland and, as we know, co-founded the SDLP. He became a poster boy for the Northern Ireland civil rights movement in June 1968 when he bravely squatted in a house in Caledon in his home county of Tyrone. I have often visited that village and stood on the big wall that surrounds the estate, dividing it from Glaslough in County Monaghan where my wife worked in the early 1980s. They had enormous bravery and courage. As the late Canon Hayes said, it is better to light one candle than to curse the dark. They lit that candle and that spark eventually ended up in some modicum of fairness for the minority of Catholics and nationalists in Northern Ireland with regard to housing and many other issues. I am delighted that I got to know him when he was here as a junior Minister. I met him at a function or two in Tiobraid Árann. It was fortuitous that he got elected in Dublin and became an Aire Stáit. I also remember meeting him during his presidential campaign. I offer the Rural Independent Group's sympathies and, indeed, our thanks and gratitude for the obair stairiúil a rinne sé. He worked very hard with the other co-founders of the SDLP, Gerry Fitt and John Hume. His autobiography says a lot more but I will not go into that today. It is a momentous day, although tinged with sadness for his wife and family. These expressions of sympathy show the respect in which he was held in this House and by the people of the Republic of Ireland. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

Photo of Jack ChambersJack Chambers (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I rise today, as a fellow representative of Dublin West, to pay tribute to the proud and lasting legacy of Austin Currie on the island of Ireland. I acknowledge all of his family who are here today. My own fondest memory is of an afternoon he and I spent in the final days of a recent election, which Senator Doherty will remember, when we were canvassing at the same church gate. It was very much the end of the campaign, when the scramble to convince those last few undecided voters takes place. He was campaigning for his daughter, Emer, who is now a Senator and my constituency colleague in Dublin West. What was clear on that day was his special way with people. Many whom he met from all walks of life showed great respect for him, but also a lovely warmth. He matched that with his own, chatting gently with churchgoers, asking after their families and engaging with sincerity and openness. He was a gentleman in the truest sense of the word. The same man chatting gently at the church gate backed up that warmth with the real strength of conviction that came to mark him from his early political career in Tyrone through to his time in Dublin West, which has cemented him as a key architect of peace on this island. He was a man who, having tried everything else, felt so strongly about the injustice he witnessed that he had to do something. His actions in 1968 marked the starting point of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. It was a protest over housing that, within months, became so much more and which has echoed down the decades since. He was a man who continued to advocate for the most vulnerable in society as the first Minister of State with responsibility for children's rights and whose vision was ultimately vindicated through the Good Friday Agreement, which I closely associate with the party he helped to found. Many in this House have a decency that allows them to connect with those they represent. Others are great statespeople who implement lasting positive change. A special few are both. Austin Currie was one of those special few. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Suaimhneas síoraí dá anam dílis. Anois, mar chomhartha ómóis, seasfaimid ar feadh nóiméid.

Members rose.