Austin Currie talks to CNI

Former politician launches his autobiography

Austin Currie spoke about his autobiography All Hell Will Break Loose in the Linen Hall Library on October 28, 2004. CultureNorthernIreland’s Brigitte Anton talked to him about his book just before the event.

Why have you written your autobiography now?

Because I have recently retired from politics and it seemed an appropriate time to do it. I considered I had a story to tell. I have a particular experience as the only person to have served in the parliaments north and south [in Ireland], and in fact I am the only person to have served in government north and south. My story is pretty unique, and nobody else can tell the story—that’s why I decided to write it.

In addition to it, I’ve been a bit concerned in recent times at the extent that efforts are made to rewrite history, particularly since the IRA ceasefires, and their political involvement as distinct from their military involvement. I have read some so called ‘facts’ of history that I know to be entirely wrong. In the interests of myself, in the interest of those with whom I was associated with politically, and in the interest of history, and the interest of truth, I thought I had to write this book. 

What made you interested in politics? What got you involved?

I think there is an interest in politics that comes in the genes, in the same as you can belong to a family that’s interested in the law, or a family that’s interested in medicine. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a trade union organiser, and two of his sons actually went into politics: one in England and one in Canada—so they were my uncles. It ran, I think in the family to that extent.

Plus the circumstances which my parents found themselves. When I was very young, my parents were discriminated against by the unionist system in Northern Ireland. 

What would you advise young people who want to get involved in politics?

To read my story. I think they will come to the conclusion that the alternative to war is ‘jaw jaw’ as Winston Churchill once said. I always believed from the time I was a student that it was possible to make progress through politics, and to have a better society as a result of political action, rather than through death and destruction. And I think if one looks dispassionately over the history of Northern Ireland over this past 30 years, it is one of the finest illustrations of the futility of violence.

But just to give one example which I gave in the book. Compare the Sunningdale agreement of 1974 with the Good Friday or Belfast agreement. In some respects the Sunningdale agreement for Irish nationalists was a better agreement. The Good Friday agreement came about 2500 deaths later—2500 people lost their lives between the fall of the Sunningdale agreement and the Good Friday agreement! I argue, that the difference was not worth the loss of one life, never mind 2500. I think Northern Ireland is a very good example that people from all societies should learn from in term of the futility of violence. 

That leads to another question. Because you were involved in non-violent political protest, do you think that it still brings results nowadays? There aren’t that many demonstrations nowadays, although the anti-war marches were large in 2003. It seems sometimes that it doesn’t make much difference if you go out on the streets or not?

So, what do you do? Well, it doesn’t make much sense to protest against war by a advocating a continuation of war, by the use of violence. If the cause is a good enough cause, if people are committed to it, and intelligently use the media, particularly television, as we fortunately managed to do in the civil rights days in the late 1960s, then non-violent protest can be particularly useful. The other factor is, that if those who oppose you use violence against you, as [Ian] Paisley, for example, used violence against the civil rights people, then it makes it even more effective.

But what do you do if you find yourself in a situation where violence is used against you?

In 1920 there was an Irish republican, Terence McSweeney who was the Lord Mayor of Cork. He died being force fed on hunger strike. He said ‘it wasn’t those who inflicted violence who would eventually conquer, but those against whom violence was used.' And he was right.

Even in terms of the republican movement advocating violence, the most effective thing they did was the non-violent activity of the hunger strikers.