Conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland was part of the Belfast landscape until Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire, stood up to violence in their community in 1976. Now more than 30 years later, they have joined the Dalai Lama in a public dialogue about peace.
Their story begins on a summer day in a residential neighborhood in the northern capital. A member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) driving a getaway car was shot and killed by a British soldier. The car careened out of control, striking Anne Maguire and her three children, Joanne, John and Andrew. Only Anne survived and she was critically injured (and would commit suicide four years later). Betty Williams, a bystander who witnessed the accident, joined forces with Anne’s sister, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, to organize peace marches. Working with journalist Ciaran McKeown, the trio co-founded Community of Peace People.
The peace campaign attracted tens of thousands of supporters throughout Northern Ireland and inspired solidarity events around the world. A year later Maguire and Williams were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Since then, these remarkable women have been pursuing peace and justice in their own way.
Both women took to the stage in Vancouver this September 27, at the University of British Columbia’s Chan Centre, for a dialogue with the Dalai Lama, also a Nobel Laureate. Moderator Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, said “the whole of Ireland cheered” when Williams and Maguire galvanised others to put an end to conflict. “They came from the community,” she said as she introduced Williams and Maguire to an audience of about 1,000. “They came from the bottom up.”
Jody Williams, awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her work to ban landmines and Reverend Mpho Tutu, daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, also joined the afternoon panel. Topics for discussion included the value of listening, compassion and taking responsibility.
“Real change must start with individuals, then family, then community,” the Dalai Lama advised. The Tibetan spiritual leader also suggested that “when much depends on individual leaders” these leaders should consider vacationing together and bringing their families. “Let their children play together,” he recommended, while the leaders get to know each other.
Betty Williams, who now dedicates much of her time working with children at World Centres of Compassion for Children, also believes personal interaction is key. She recalled growing up a willful child and her exhausted mother pleading with her father to discipline her.
But Williams said her father was not prepared to strike his child. “He removed the fear,” Williams said and because of this, she says he was more effective in getting through to her.
“I believe every life is sacred,” Maguire said, “particularly children. “ She spoke of her activism in support of Palestinians and reminded the audience the word compassion means “to suffer with.”
Maguire said she and 20 others were aboard the Spirit of Humanity earlier this year, a ship carrying medical aid, toys and other supplies to Palestinians in Gaza. She condemned Israeli officials for boarding their boat and arresting the group. They were imprisoned for a week, then deported.
Williams and Maguire are both members of the International Peace Council and the Nobel Women’s Initiative. The latter group consists of seven women, (http://nobelwomensinitiative.org/) and was started by Jody Williams, who has been instrumental in bringing countries together to sign land mine treaties.
“Sensitivity without action is a wasted emotion,” Jody Williams said during the dialogue. She urged people to develop “compassion with action.”
Archbishop Tutu, scheduled to attend, was absent because of a back injury. His daughter, Mpho, spoke in his place, praising both her parents. “We are not powerless,” she said. “We do have the authority in our own lives.”
“We really need to embrace the concept of the whole world as ‘we,’ “ the Dalai Lama said, as he concluded the session by encouraging people to be compassionate.
Williams and Maguire – two ordinary women living in Belfast – found a way to act on the concepts proposed by the Dalai Lama more than 30 years ago, making a difference in Northern Ireland that continues to reverberate today.
Janet Nicol is a BC teacher and activist.