Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams

Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams were both Irish Catholic women born and raised in Ulster County in Northern Ireland.  Although they were of different temperaments and markedly distinct in their approaches to living, they both became instrumental in focusing attention upon the seeming endless cycle of violence and retribution that had come to dominate the lives of ordinary citizens in that region.  They were instrumental in the formation of the Community of Peace People and ultimately won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for their efforts.

In regards to problems facing Northern Ireland at that time, it would be of interest to spend some time examining the history of Ireland.  Ever since the landing of King Henry II's Norman host on the shores of Ireland in the twelfth century, the enmity between the Irish and the British had been incessant.  Although Queen Elizabeth I, Oliver Cromwell and King William III all tried to control Ireland and its people, they were essentially unsuccessful.  Numerous attempts were made to introduce colonies of Protestants from Scotland as a way to subdue the native population.  Invariably, these transplants would be absorbed into the local culture with the exception of Ulster County.  Only in this Northern Province did this strategy meet with any success.

Until 1972, the Constitution of Ulster was based on the Irish Government Act of 1920 that provided home rule for the South of Ireland comprised of majority Catholic, while the Protestant Northeast remained with Great Britain.  This resulted in two separate parliaments – one in Dublin and the other in Belfast.  Both had representation in the British Parliament.  In 1922, Southern Ireland rejected this arrangement and formed the Irish Free State that remained with the British Commonwealth and in 1948 became the Republic of Ireland.  In contrast to the situation in Southern Ireland, in June of 1921, the Parliament of Northern met for the first time.  The forty-six Protestant and Unionist members were all present, but the twelve Catholic members of the Sinn Fein (the political wing of the Irish Republican Army – IRA) boycotted the ceremony.  The goal of Sinn Fein was the unification of all of Ireland and the abrogation of all links with what came to be regarded as British imperialism.   This boycott resulted in the formation a government with no political input from the Catholic population, since no Catholic representatives were present. 

In response to the threat posed by the IRA, the Belfast government created the so-called B Special police reservists that came to be hated by the Catholic population.  In addition, in 1922, a Special Powers Act was made into law; this legislation allowed for so-called "administrative internment" – permitting the imprisonment of suspected terrorists without due process.    The Protestants were represented for the most part by the Unionist Party and its associated extremist group – the Orange Order.  Unionists sought to maintain their relationship with Great Britain.  They carried every election between 1921 and 1969. 

For almost fifty years prior to 1969, the one million Protestants of Northern Ireland had exercised excessive authority over the one-half million Catholics of the region giving them only a de-facto voice in provincial government.  This discrimination led to the formation of Catholic and Protestant ghettoes with the Catholics often denied their fair share of community resources.

Inspired by the civil rights movement of the 1960s in the United States, the Catholics of Northern Ireland sought a redress of their grievances.  A commission set up by Lord Cameron from Great Britain ascertained that the Catholic population was, in fact, discriminated against by the Protestant majority resulting in excessive unemployment and a lack of adequate housing.  There were demonstrations and marches sponsored by the North Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) that demanded one vote per person in municipal elections and the abolishment of gerrymandering – the political realigning of electoral boundaries to shift election results - and discrimination.  In October of 1968, the Belfast government prohibited NICRA from organizing and outlawed civil rights marches in Londonderry.  A march took place in spite of the ban and violence erupted.

These events fueled antagonism and hatred between the two groups.  This came to a head in 1969 when there were reports of Protestant incursions into the Catholic sectors with subsequent arsonist attacks.  In response to this violence, the Provisional arm of the Irish Republican Army (Provos) began to recruit new members and to respond with violence.  Any attempts to assuage this regional discord was found unacceptable to the extremists in both camps.   On August 14, 1969, the British sent troops to Northern Ireland to help the local police restore public order in Londonderry and Belfast.  An attempt was made to set up a regional government acceptable to both Catholics and Protestants.  This attempt failed.  For eight years, the region was overwhelmed by bombings, indiscriminate killings and targeted assassinations.  This atmosphere left people terribly frightened and irrational as acts of terror invariably do.

When British forces came to Northern Ireland in an attempt to quell the unrest, they imposed a solution through the Temporary Provisions Act of 1972.  This act abolished the Belfast Parliament, suspended the Belfast Parliament and transferred all executive power to the Secretary of State of Northern Ireland – a position that held a cabinet rank in the British government.  This newly appointed Chief Executive was expected to accomplish the following:

·         Reassure the Protestant majority – Northern Ireland would not to cease to be a part of the United Kingdom without consent of the regional parliament

·         Support the Catholic minority by honoring their concerns and addressing their grievances

·         Maintain a British military presence in Ulster until a resolution of the crisis.

Unfortunately, all attempts at power sharing failed.


This was the social and political environment that surrounded the lives of Corrigan and Williams.  They were living separate lives and did not know of each other's existence; until, a fateful tragedy radically changed their futures and connected them irrevocably to the cause of peace.

On August 10, 1976, a woman, Mrs. Anne Maguire, happened to be walking with her three children next to a busy street.  Suddenly, they were hit by a car carrying Provos that were being chased by British forces.  The driver lost control of the car after he was shot and killed by the pursuing troops.  Her children Andrew and Joanna died instantly and the mother was grievously wounded. Mrs. Pat O'Connor, the aunt of the Maguire children witnessed the event.  Maguire's son John later died of his injuries.  Mairead Corrigan was also an aunt to the three dead children, and Betty Williams had been near the scene of the accident and saw the tragedy in its entirety.


This singular incident so impacted Corrigan and Williams; they were so utterly outraged by this event that seemed to categorize the state of mind of the people of Northern Ireland that they helped organize a protest for the following day that involved fifty Catholic women pushing baby carriages.  Although the IRA tried to shift the blame regarding the tragedy to the British occupation, it was not convincing.  The residents of this troubled region, especially women, were tired of the violence and they wanted it to end. 

In an interview by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), Corrigan said, "It is not violence that people want."  She went on to condemn all those who encouraged young people to join paramilitary organizations – "Only one percent of the people of this province want this slaughter."

Williams, for her part, helped sponsor a news event in her neighborhood in order to draw attention to public sentiment against violence.  Similar events quickly spread throughout Belfast leading to what was described as a disorganized uprising.  Forty-eight hours following the children's deaths, Williams called for a petition against violence over the local television station; this petition yielded over 6,000 signatures.  This petition demanded that the IRA halt its military campaign.  In addition, a march was announced for the following day and Protestant women were invited to attend.  The group was to march to Hilltown Cemetery where all the Maguire children were to be buried.  Williams received telegrams of support from, labor unions, private organizations and individuals.  On Saturday, the day of the march, 10,000 women came to Andersontown – a Catholic ghetto as a huge demonstration of support.  Although the women were attacked by Republicans during the march, the event was overwhelmingly successful.  Out of this demonstration, the Community of Peace People was born.


Betty Williams was thirty-six years old at the time to the tragedy that struck the Maguire children.  She was living quietly in a two bedroom house.  She was a working housewife and mother. Williams possesses a forceful personality and is extremely outgoing.    She was born in 1941 and was married in 1963.  She has two children.  Her husband was a maritime engineer and spent as much as eleven months out of the year away from home; therefore, the day-to-day responsibilities for the family fell upoon her.  They lived in Finaghy, a Catholic sector in the Southwest part of Belfast. When Williams was thirteen, her mother had an incapacitating stroke, and, as a consequence, she took on the role of raising her younger sister.  William's mother was Catholic, her father was Protestant and her maternal grandmother was Jewish; this reality probably influenced her tendency towards open-mindedness as an adult.  Although she was admittedly apathetic before the tragedy that she witnessed, Williams ultimately devoted herself entirely to the peace movement.

   Corrigan was 33 three years of age and was still living with her parents at the time.  She was living in one of the so-called "hot" Catholic sectors in West Belfast.  In spite of the fear that gripped her neighborhood regarding the ever present possibility of acts of terror, Corrigan was active in her community.   She worked as a secretary for Guinness - the well known Irish brewery, and in the evenings worked for the Legion of Mary that helped provide services for those in need. 

Corrigan was born on January 27, 1944 in the Catholic ghetto of Falls in West Belfast.  She was born into a large family – five girls and two boys.  Since the Ulster state schools required the teaching of the Protestant religion, she was sent to a Catholic school.   Corrigan quit school at the age of 14 for economic reasons.  At a point in her life she moved to Andersontown and worked with disadvantaged adolescents.  Andersontown was a bleak Catholic community; the city was built quickly after World War II for Catholics and offered little in the way of amenities; there were no playgrounds, community centers, movie theatres and especially nothing for the children.  In spite of all the violence that erupted from 1969, as discussed earlier, Corrigan remained calm and refused to give in to fear.  She remained an avowed pacifist.  She was quoted as saying, "…for violence to cease, must discover the cause and change things." 


As a consequence of their efforts, Corrigan and Williams were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for their extraordinary efforts. 

The following is an excerpt from Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech delivered by Williams – "…But unlocking the desire for peace would never have been enough. All the energy, all the determination to express an overwhelming demand for an end to the sickening cycle of useless violence would have reverberated briefly and despairingly among the people, as had happened so many times before ... if we had not organized ourselves to use that energy and that determination positively, once and for all.

So in that first week Mairead Corrigan, Ciaran McKeown and I founded the Movement of the Peace People, in order to give real leadership and direction to the desire which we were certain was there, deep within the hearts of the vast majority of the people,... and even deep within the hearts of those who felt, perhaps still do, feel obliged, to oppose us in public.

That first week will always be remembered of course for something else besides the birth of the Peace People. For those most closely involved, the most powerful memory of that week was the death of a young republican and the deaths of three children struck by the dead man's car. A deep sense of frustration at the mindless stupidity of the continuing violence was already evident before the tragic events of that sunny afternoon of August 10, 1976. But the deaths of those four young people in one terrible moment of violence caused that frustration to explode, and create the possibility of a real peace movement. Perhaps the fact that one of those children was a baby of six weeks in a pram pushed by his mother made that tragedy especially unbearable. Maybe it was because three children from one family, baby Andrew, little John and eight-year-old Joanne Maguire died in one event which also seriously injured their mother, Anne, Mairead's sister, that the grief was so powerful. Perhaps it was the sheer needlessness of this awful loss of life that motivated people to turn out in protesting thousands that week. And we do not forget the young republican, Danny Lennon who lost his life that day. He may have been involved in trying to shoot soldiers that day and was himself shot dead, and some may argue that he got what he deserved. As far as we are concerned, this was another young life needlessly lost. As far as we are concerned, every single death in the last eight years, and every death in every war that was ever fought represents life needlessly wasted, a mother's labor spurned…"


These two women thrust together by forces out of their immediate control, created a peace movement that was so effective that it has served as a model for social non-violent action to address issues of peace and social justice.  

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