President Michael D Higgins has led tributes to former Northern Ireland civil rights activist and Fine Gael TD Austin Currie, who has died aged 82.

President Higgins said Ireland has lost a "dedicated, sincere and very committed politician".

"His outstanding service to the people of this country as an advocate and politician will stand as his proud legacy. It was pleasure and privilege to have worked with him as a colleague in politics," President Higgins said.

"He will be remembered as a public representative who gave outstanding service to people of the island of Ireland over so many decades."

Mr Currie was also a founding member of the SDLP in the early 1970s.

He had a long political career and was one of the few elected to parliament on both sides of the border. He moved to Dublin in the 1980s and joined Fine Gael, running for president in 1990.

Mr Currie served as a minister of state in the rainbow coalition a few years later.

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He is survived by his wife Annita and their five children, including their daughter Senator Emer Currie.

In a statement issued this evening, the Currie family said they were "heartbroken" by his death.

Born in Coalisland, Co Tyrone, he became the youngest MP elected to the parliament at Stormont at the age of 24 when he took a seat for the Nationalist party in East Tyrone.

Four years later in 1968, he was one of a group that occupied a house which had been allocated by the council to a young unmarried woman who was the secretary to a local Unionist politician.

It came at a time when there were 250 people on the housing waiting list and many Catholic families were living in overcrowded conditions.

Austin Currie was a Stormont MP from 1964 until 1972 and became a TD in 1989 (Pic: RTÉ Stills Library)

In 1970, Mr Currie was one of the founding members of the SDLP with John Hume, Ivan Cooper, Gerry Fitt, Paddy Devlin and Paddy O'Hanlon. He went on to serve as the Minister for Housing in Northern Ireland's first powersharing executive in 1974.

He contested Westminster elections in Fermanagh-South Tyrone in 1979 and 1986 and was elected to represent that constituency in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1982.

In 1989, he moved south after winning a seat in Dublin West in that year's General Election. In 1990, he was Fine Gael's candidate for the President. He came third behind Fianna Fáil's Brian Lenihan and winner Mary Robinson.

During the Fine Gael-led rainbow coalition government from 1994 to 1997 he was minister of state at the Departments of Education, Justice and Health.

He lost his Dáil seat at the 2002 General Election and retired from electoral politics.

The Currie family said: "After a long and eventful life, he died peacefully in his sleep at his home in Derrymullen, Co Kildare. He had just celebrated his 82nd birthday.

"Austin was married to Annita for 53 years. They were a formidable team whose love for each other and their family saw them through some of the worst times in Northern Ireland's recent history.

"Austin, who was born in Co Tyrone, was the eldest of eleven children. His decision to squat a council house in Caledon in June 1968 is widely seen as the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

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"One of the founding members of the SDLP along with John Hume and Gerry Fitt, Austin played a key role in the politics of that era.

"In 1989, he won a seat in Dublin West for Fine Gael and pursued a successful career as TD and minister until retirement in 2002.

"Our Daddy was wise, brave and loving and we thank him for the values that he lived by and instilled in us. He was our guiding star who put the principles of peace, social justice and equality first.

"From Edendork in county Tyrone to the bog of Allen, Daddy was most at home with his beloved Annita and his family, surrounded by newspapers and grandchildren. We will miss him deeply."

Austin Currie (2nd L) alongside John Hume, Paddy O'Hanlon and Bernadette Devlin at a protest outside Downing Street in 1971

SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood has paid tribute to Mr Currie, describing him as a "titan of the civil rights movement".

He added: "His housing protest in Caledon in 1968 was one of the key sparks for the civil rights campaign that followed and he spoke for a generation of young nationalists when he refused to allow his constituents to be treated as second class citizens anymore.

"Each time we lose a political giant like Austin we lose a piece of our history. While moments like this bring us great sadness, it also gives us the opportunity to celebrate the man and the huge contribution he made to politics in both the North and South of our island.

"It's because of brave men and women like Austin who saw the way their community was being treated and refused to be silenced, that we all enjoy the freedoms and privileges we have today."

Taoiseach Micheál Martin paid tribute to Mr Currie, saying he was "one of the founding fathers of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland".

Tánaiste and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar described him as "one of the outstanding politicians of his generation".

Mr Varadkar added: "I knew Austin as a brave, courageous, and principled man. He was blessed with extensive political insight and boundless humanity.

"Above all, he cared most about bringing peace to this island by peaceful means, something he worked towards throughout his political career, and was vehemently opposed to political violence.

"My thoughts are today with his family, and his extensive circle of friends and acquaintances."

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said he was "a man of extraordinary generosity & conviction, he campaigned for social justice, equality and peace all his life, North and South. Sincere condolences to his family".

Chair of the John and Pat Hume Foundation Dr Seán Farren said Mr Austin was a "true giant of civil rights and constitutional politics".

"He was a courageous leader who dedicated his political life to non-violent peaceful change.

"He was a pioneer in the movement for civil rights. His decision to lead a sit-in at a house in Caledon to highlight discrimination in housing allocation by Dungannon Council was a key moment in the movement's campaign to achieve fairness and civil rights for all."