PLATFORM – Austin Currie
Irish News 21/06/08
AT our meeting in the House of Commons in January 1968 Paul Rose MP, chairman of the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster, confirmed what I had believed for some time when he said to me, “No British government – including this Labour government – will intervene to remedy injustice in Northern Ireland unless you people there force it to do so”.
That was the thinking and the motive behind what I did in Caledon 40 years ago – on Thursday June 20 1968 – and my subsequent proposal to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association to organise civil rights marches.
There was also the recognition that in concentrating on housing discrimination and other injustices we were attacking unionism in its Achilles heel.
The unionists asserted we were British so we were therefore entitled to the same rights as other citizens elsewhere in the UK.
Unionism had no answer to that demand.
So that house in Kinnard Park, Caledon, allocated to a 19-year-old single girl became the symbol of denial of basic civil rights and Britain’s failure to accept its sovereign responsibilities.
Dungannon and Derry had been focal points for housing protest for a number of years. In Dungannon the Homeless Citizens’ League, which was later broadened to become the Campaign For Social Justice (CSJ), had been formed by Conn and Patricia McCluskey.
The CSJ produced pamphlets and fact sheets detailing injustices perpetrated on the Catholic population, particularly in the allocation of council housing and vote
The allocation of local authority housing was a central element in unionist control of a number of councils.
‘One man one vote’ did not exist for Stormont and council elections, unlike elections to Westminster.
For council elections the vote was confined to householders and their spouses. The granting of a council house was therefore effectively the provision of two votes.
In places like Derry, Dun-gannon, Co Fermanagh, Ar-magh and Omagh the allocation of council houses along with the gerrymandering of ward boundaries were the measures employed to translate a Catholic majority into a minority on the council.
I had been elected MP for East Tyrone in 1964 and from the beginning I had cooperated closely with the McClus-keys and two Dungannon councillors, Michael McLoug-hlin and John Donaghy.
I campaigned for a points system for the letting of houses without success.
The hope of the early days of Terence O’Neill’s premiership began quickly to erode and by 1967 was being re-placed by disillusionment, frustration and anger.
By late 1967, with Gerry Fitt MP, who was continually frustrated in his efforts to raise at Westminster matters de-volved to the Stormont government, I was publicly calling for a campaign of civil disobedience and supporting those who squatted in council houses as a protest against unfair allocation.
The allocation of No 9 Kinnard Park, Caledon, in May 1968 was for me the final straw.
A 19-year-old single girl, Emily Beattie, employed by a solicitor who was the prospective unionist candidate for West Belfast, was given the house in preference to 269 other applicants on the waiting list in Dungannon Rural District Council, including some in the Caledon area, living in dwellings designated unfit for human habitation.
Even by the standards of Dungannon council it was a blatant and provocative example of injustice.
To add injury to insult was the humiliation of the eviction in front of TV cameras and photographers from the house next door of a Catholic family, Mr and Mrs Goodfel-low and their three children, who had been involved in a squatting protest for the previous eight months.
I had supported the family and helped to publicise their case to the extent that the Unionist Party had passed a censure motion on me at Stormont.
Now this brave family were dragged from the house by bailiffs while next door a 19-year-old girl with no dependents was in legal possession of a three-bedroom house.
For me this was the ideal test case of the professed reform intentions of the O’Neill government.
I had used all the avenues open to an MP to expose injustice. Finally in the debate in Stormont, when John Taylor MP attempted to justify the Beattie allocation, I deliberately used the unparliamentary expression guaranteed to have me ordered from the House – “It is a damned lie.”
That night I called a meeting at my home, informed those present, including the Good-fellow family, of my intention to squat in the house allocated to Emily Beattie and requested as many as possible to accompany me.
The following morning my wife drove me to Caledon where I was joined by Phelim Gildernew, a brother of Mrs Goodfellow, and a local farmer, Joe Campbell.
At my suggestion, to signify our joint commitment, the three of us jointly used a poker to break a window, enter the house and barricade ourselves in. The media arrived within an hour.
To our relief after three-and-a-half hours Emily Beattie’s brother and others arrived armed with a sledge hammer. Having to stay in that house in that area during the hours of darkness was a disturbing prospect!
It was rumoured that the UVF intended to get involved.
The door was smashed in and we were ejected none too gently – into the lenses of the waiting media.
An MP breaking the law was good copy. That night the main BBC News from London for the first time carried a report on injustice in North-ern Ireland.
The process of forcing the British government to intervene to remedy civil rights abuses in Northern Ireland had begun.
Two weeks later Michael McLoughlin and I put a proposal to the executive of the Civil Rights Association for a civil rights march between Coalisland and Dungannon. We did indeed make history in Caledon 40 years ago.
- Austin Currie was MP for East Tyrone at Stormont and later TD for Dublin West. He is the only person elected to both parliaments on the island and served as a minister in both jurisdictions. His autobiography, All Hell will break Loose, is published by O’Brien Press.