NI Civil Rights leader visits Heywood

Austin Curry speaks to Heywood history students.

Austin Curry speaks to Heywood history students.

It is rare that students get to see a person that features in their History course but such an opportunity arose on Tuesday 27th March in Heywood Community School when Mr Austin Curry spoke to the senior cycle students as part of History Week.

Austin Curry was a founding member of the SDLP and one of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland in the late sixties.

Speaking to students he described the situation in Northern Ireland in the early sixties. He spoke of the crucial importance of education. In his own case he did well in the 11 plus exam and got a place in a grammar school.

He described how housing was more important than a job in the North of Ireland. The reason was that only householders and their spouses could vote and houses were allocated by the local councils within electoral wards that were gerrymandered to ensure a Unionist majority. Even in cities and towns like Derry which had a Catholic majority the drawing of boundaries meant that there was always a Unionist majority on the council.

He began a protest about discrimination in housing allocation by ‘squatting’ (illegally occupying) in a house in Caledon. The house had been allocated by Dungannon Rural District Council to a 19 year-old unmarried Protestant woman, Emily Beattie, who was the secretary of a local Unionist politician. Emily Beattie was given the house ahead of older married Catholic families with children. The protesters were evicted by officers of the RUC, one of whom was Emily Beattie’s brother. The next day the annual conference of the Nationalist Party unanimously approved of the protest action by Austin Currie in Caledon. This was one of the catalysts of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland.

What followed were protest marches, occupations and agitation which as he explained were very successful. Within four years they had achieved “one man one vote”, reforms in local councils and the disbandment of the hated B Specials. As he pointed out the movement then was all about civil rights and promoting equality of opportunity and nothing about the border or getting the British out. That came later as the IRA grew out of the unrest that was generated later in the sectarian riots.

He fielded questions on the Northern situation and the events he had lived through and participated in and gave his opinions on the current situation. He was very impressed with the knowledge the students.


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