IT IS rare that students get to see a person that features in their History course, but such an opportunity arose last month in Heywood Community School when Austin Curry spoke to the senior students as part of History Week.
Austin Currie 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 the assembled students, he described the situation in Northern Ireland in the early 1960s, and 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.
Taking a cue from the civil rights and anti-war movement in the USA, he began a protest about discrimination in housing allocation by squatting 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.
Mr Currie 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 quality of the questioning and the knowledge the students showed of the current and past history of Northern Ireland.
For the students, it was a chance to hear at first hand and from an active participant the story of the civil rights agitation in the North and the genesis of the whole troubles. History came alive and gained a whole new significance and promoted a greater understanding. It was a memorable occasion.