Women primarily, Protestants, Catholics, and secular folk, rich and poor, work together for peace.
An air of unreality characterized my initial impressions during a week's visit to Northern Ireland last May. So friendly are the people, it appeared that everyone gets along with everybody. To judge from the prosperous farms, or the construction sites, new houses, and busy shops in Belfast, it appeared to be a land of milk and honey! I walked about without fear, it appeared that the benign neglect that the media and the international peace movement bestow on Northern Ireland was warranted.
Unless one catches sight of the army patrols. Unless one notes the graffiti as one crosses Falls Road, the peace line. "Our day will come', '1916-1991. 75 years of struggle" "Arms are for struggle." Unless, of course, one hears Ian Paisley preach. Since the "troubles" erupted in 1968, inter-communal violence has marked Northern Ireland. While violence has never affected the whole population directly, it is virtually impossible to meet anyone unaffected personally by violence. Murder, retaliation, individuals targeted, different groups subjected to fear: these compound other problems such as juvenile crime, the economic backwardness of the country, an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.
Against this general background, the peace people emerged in 1976. Women undertook a peace initiative. The spark which ignited the movement was a grisly event, although it was perhaps no more so than all the others. Three children died in West Belfast when they were struck by a gunman's getaway car.
The children's aunt, Mairead Corrigan, was the second of seven children of a working-class family unable to provide for her education, Apart from some business courses, she left school at age 14. A devout Catholic, she grew up hating the British soldiers and, in 1973, nearly joined the Irish Republican Army. In 1976, Mairead was serving as a secretary to a director of a brewery. During a television interview the day after the death of her sister's children, she burst out, "It's not violence that people want. Only one percent of the people of this province want this slaughter."
Betty Williams, a housewife from a mixed Catholic-Protestant background who had witnessed the accident, joined Mairead in organizing a peace march to the new graves of the Maguire children. Women primarily, Protestants and Catholics, adherents and secular folk, rich and poor, walked together. Ciaran MeKeown, a journalist, helped formulate a "Declaration of Peace" with a simple appeal to engage in nonviolent struggle. Their slogan was, peace by peace, there is no way to peace but by peaceful means.'
They called their movement the "Northern Irish Peace People." The term suggested an identity which could be shared by everybody. Catholics would not feel excluded by the use of the word "Irish" but had to accept the reality of the situation that they were Northern and separate from the Republic. Protestants would not feel threatened by the spectre of a united Ireland but had to accept the reality of a pan-Irish identity.
The campaign attracted tens of thousands of supporters throughout Northern Ireland and engendered solidarity events around the world. The hope for peace and enthusiasm for a genuine grassroots movement led the 1976 Nobel Prize Committee to reserve the award for Corrigan and Williams. Nominated through regular channels the following year, they received the 1976 prize at the same ceremony at which Amnesty International was recognized.
The road forward proved difficult. In 1978, Corrigan and Williams stepped down from leadership of the Peace People to give others a chance for leadership. Controversy and further tragedy ensued. In 1980, Mairead's sister Anne, still overcome by grief, committed suicide. Mairead helped her brother-in-law take care of the three remaining children, and in 1981, they were married. Betty Williams also married and went her separate way.
The Peace People continues its existence with a modest program and membership. Some of the Nobel Prize funds served to purchase a house at 224 Lisburn Road, Belfast. Peace House provides offices for myriad organizations working for reconciliation or social change and publishes Peace by Peace, a monthly newsletter. The Peace People also owns a farm which runs an educational centre. Children of all backgrounds and ages gather for experiences in intercommunal living and an introduction to principles of reconciliation and nonviolent living.
Mairead Corrigan Maguire remains active, an articulate spokesperson for nonviolent struggle. She is not alone. Many organizations quietly work to build a different kind of society. Corrymeela, Columbanus, Co-operation North, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Society of Friends, Women Together are among nearly eighty listed in a recent guide to peace and reconciliation groups in Northern Ireland. Although the peace movement has not stopped the violence, without it the effects of the civil war might have been worse and prospects for the future bleaker.
In presenting the Nobel Prize to Corrigan and Williams, Egil Aarvik said, "Love of one's neighbour is one of the foundation stones of the humanism on which our western civilization is built But it is vital that we should have the courage to sustain this love of neighbour when the pressure to abandon it is at its greatest ...Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire are still attempting to show what ordinary people can do to promote the cause of peace."
Paul Dekar is the acting director of the Centre for Peace Studies at McMaster University.