The civil rights movement in Northern Ireland was one of the most successful political exercises in Irish history, former MP Austin Currie has said.
Mr Currie, who played a key role in the first civil rights march, said it rivalled the campaign for Catholic emancipation in the 1820s that was spearheaded by the famous Irish political leader Daniel O’Connell.
He made the remarks on the 50th anniversary of the first march, which the Tyrone native organised from Coalisland to Dungannon on August 24 1968.
“It was a historic occasion and one of the most successful political exercises that there has been since O’Connell and 1829,” Mr Currie said.
Prior to that first march, he said unionists had been in total control of Northern Ireland.
“They had a permanent majority in parliament and in government,” he said.
“They had control of the political scene and the justice system and the voting system. They had everything they wanted.”
Born in Co Tyrone, Mr Currie was brought up in the small Catholic town of Coalisland.
He was elected as a Nationalist MP for East Tyrone from 1964 until 1972 and was one of the founders of the SDLP.
He moved to the Republic in 1989 and was Fine Gael TD for Dublin West.
In June 1968, Mr Currie occupied a house in Caledon in Co Tyrone in protest as what he described as the discriminatory allocation of houses by the local council.
When he saw a 19-year-old girl “who happened to be a Protestant and a unionist” and “worked at a unionist politician’s solicitor’s office” being allocated a home ahead of 269 others on the waiting list he said he felt compelled to take action.
“I just felt it was unfair, unjust, intolerable and something had to be done and I did it,” he said.
Mr Currie said he made the decision to organise the march after taking part in the protests against the housing situation, hoping the event would be similar to those witnessed in the southern states of the United States.
Two months after that march, another civil rights protest ended in violent scenes when police clashed with protesters in Londonderry.
Mr Currie said organisers had actually been disappointed with the numbers that turned out for the march, which had been banned, yet he said it has since become one of the catalysts for the entire civil rights movement in Northern Ireland.
“The RUC acted absolutely stupidly and in front of the television cameras, particularly RTE, they ran awry, they ran mad and it was on the television and was seen around the world and that really effectively gave the boost which became the very successful civil rights movement,” he said.
The former TD for west Dublin said he regretted the loss of lives during the Troubles that ensued after the marches.
“It wasn’t inevitable that it would happen,” he said, insisting non-violence was at the heart of the civil rights movement.
“It was very unfortunate and was not inevitable. But I wish it hadn’t happened,” he said.
Mr Currie added: “The civil rights campaign was an extremely successful organisation and it actually changed the whole political scene as far as Northern Ireland was concerned and of course I don’t regret that.”
The former MP and TD criticised the powersharing impasse at Stormont.
He said it was a “totally hypocritical situation” that elected representatives were being paid when the Assembly was not sitting.
Veteran Democratic Unionist Nelson McCausland has a very different interpretation of the civil rights movement.
The former Stormont minister said: “It may be the anniversary of the first civil rights march but he said it was certainly not their first appearance on the streets in that they had been out in Easter in 1968 against the banning of the republican Easter Rising parade.
“That in a sense was part of the problem that right from the start the civil rights movement was so closely aligned with Irish nationalism and republicanism.”
He said the movement was “never going to be a place that was welcoming to unionists”.
He added: “The tragedy is that it led on eventually to a situation which broke out into violence that led to more than 3,000 people dead.”
The former MLA claimed that there are a lot of inaccuracies when it came to the housing statistics from the time.
“Much of what was put forward as fact to justify claims of discrimination was actually manipulated,” he said.
He said there was some examples where there was an “unbalance” but he maintained that overall there was a “fairly reasonable” spread of council housing going to Catholic and Protestants at the time.
“It’s not the picture that was portrayed at the time.”