The break-in was a protest against Northern Ireland’s notoriously discriminatory housing policy, which saw the Catholic Nationalist community very much play second best to the Protestant Unionists when it came to council house allocation.
Decisions were made by local councils, which tended to be Unionist-dominated. Unlike anywhere else in the UK, the right to vote was linked to property ownership or occupation. With councils refusing to allocate houses to Catholic families, this limited their right to vote and, along with gerrymandering, helped to preserve Unionist dominance.
Protests against that policy had been growing steadily during the 1960s after Conn and Patricia McCluskey founded the Campaign for Social Justice in Dungannon in 1963.
WHAT HAPPENED 50 YEARS AGO?
LOCAL Catholics in the town of Caledon in Currie’s constituency had been incensed when 14 out of 15 houses in the Kinnard Park development were allocated to Protestants, despite a local priest, Father Tom Savage, being promised the division would be eight to seven.
Two Catholic families, the Goodfellows and the McKennas, protested and moved into No 11 Kinnard Park in October 1967, to squat there. The three-bedroom house next door at No 9 was given to a 19-year-old, single Protestant woman, Emily Beattie, who just happened to be the secretary of a Unionist politician.
Two days before the break-in , Currie had made a very public protest at the eviction of the Goodfellows from No 11 despite them being promised a council house. The eviction was brutal and the Goodfellows, with three young children, had to lodge with family, putting 16 people in one small house.
Currie and two companions, Patsy Gildernew and Joe Campbell, used a poker to break in and occupy No 9. They were evicted hours later by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, with Emily Beattie’s policeman brother there to see them out.
WHO WAS CURRIE?
CURRIE was one of a new breed of Northern Irish politicians who campaigned for civil rights. His protest at Caledon made headline news and the next day the annual conference of the Nationalist Party unanimously endorsed his actions. Currie would become a leading light in the civil rights movement and, after Caledon, the way was set for the civil rights activists to undertake non-violent civil disobedience.
Currie went on to help found the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. He later moved to Dublin and was elected to the Dail for Fine Gael, serving as minister of justice before he retired in 2002.
DIDN’T THE TROUBLES START WITH THE CIVIL RIGHTS MARCH?
THE first march of the civil rights movement since partition in the 1920s took place on August 24 from Coalisland to Dungannon. It passed off without incident – despite a Loyalist counter demonstration – but less than two months later, on October 5, a similar civil rights march in Derry was battered off the streets by police. That march in October 1968 is generally considered to have been the start of the Troubles, but without the actions of Currie and his companions on June 20, it is unlikely the movement would have been ready enough.
IS ALL PEACEFUL NOW?
POSSIBLY not as the Good Friday Agreement is strained by Brexit. Currie returned to Dungannon on Friday last to take part in a conference on housing organised by the SDLP to mark the 50th anniversary of his protest. He was joined by retired Ulster University professor Paddy Gray, the university’s Professor Duncan Morrow and other leading experts in the field of housing.
Currie told the Irish News: “It was the beginning of the civil rights campaign proper. In a very, very short time, we managed to have a successful resolution to many of the abuses.
“The Housing Executive was set up; gerrymandering was stopped with the introduction of PR voting, and the B Specials [Ulster Special Constabulary] were abolished. I believe it was a beginning and I believe I helped change history.”
SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon said yesterday: “Despite the hard-fought gains of the courageous and committed women and men behind the civil rights movement – to which we owe an insurmountable debt of gratitude – the civil rights battle for equality persists, and when it comes to housing the absence of equality is glaring.
“We should be able to use the powers hard won through the Good Friday Agreement to deliver change and build a future of hope and opportunity for everyone. However, instead of looking forward to the future, the last 18 months have rewound us back 50 years, leaving us voiceless and powerless to advocate and deliver for people.”