Mairead Corrigan-Maguire (born 1944) and Betty Williams-Perkins (born 1943) were the founders of the women's peace movement in Northern Ireland in 1976. The movement sponsored marches by women from the rival communities in the province in protest against violence and drew international attention and acclaim. They were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1976 when their efforts were credited with reducing the death toll in Northern Ireland by half.
Mairead Corrigan, born January 27, 1944, was the second child in a West Belfast Catholic working class family of five girls and two boys. She attended St. Vincent's Primary School and as a teenager went to Miss Gordon's Commercial College in Belfast, which qualified her for a clerical position. She advanced to become the confidential secretary to the managing director of the Guinness Brewery in Belfast. Her organizational involvement was primarily church-oriented, being an activist member of the Legion of Mary, a lay Catholic religious and welfare society, in which she supervised recreational activities for children and teenagers in the bleak West Belfast areas. This spurred her interest in assisting the community. As a Catholic, Corrigan was influenced by the traditions of her religion, but not those of the Republicans, those factions of Northern Ireland's Catholic minority who were fighting to unite the province with the Republic of Ireland.
Betty Williams was born on May 22, 1943, in a Catholic sector of Belfast known as Andersonstown, the eldest daughter of a mixed family (her father was Protestant and her mother Catholic, her grandfather Jewish). She attended St. Teresa's Primary School and St. Dominic's Grammar (high) School and afterwards took secretarial courses. When she was 13, her mother was incapacitated by a stroke and Williams was responsible for raising her younger sister. When she was 18 she married an English Protestant, Ralph Williams, an engineer in the merchant marine, and traveled with him considerably. They had a son and a daughter, although the marriage was ultimately dissolved. She worked as an office receptionist. Her involvement in social activism was nonexistent until she witnessed the tragedy that occurred in front of her on a Belfast Street in August 1976.
The hostility that lay between the minority Catholic and majority Protestant communities in Northern Ireland caused strife for years. The central issue were the contradictory aspirations of both factions: the Catholics wanted unification with the Republic of Ireland and the Protestants wanted to maintain their union with Britain. The era of troubles that began after 1969 was prompted specifically by Catholic complaints of discriminatory treatment by the Northern Irish state, especially in policing, welfare, social benefits, and public employment. The British, at the request of the Northern Irish Protestants, sent military forces to serve as peace keepers in 1969. What followed this intervention was guerrilla warfare and terrorism by revolutionary nationalists, especially the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) within the Catholic community, and sectarian murders of Catholics by assorted Protestant militants such as the Ulster Volunteer Force. The loss of life because of the strife had reached an average of over 200 a year in a community were homicide had once been a rare phenomenon.
On August 10, 1976 Corrigan and Williams were brought together when three children of Mairead Corrigan's sister, Anne Maguire, were killed when hit by an IRA getaway car whose driver had been shot dead by British soldiers. Mairead Corrigan and her brother-in-law Jackie Maguire condemned the IRA on television for having brought on the tragedy. Betty Williams, who had witnessed the tragedy, went about in the Catholic areas securing 6,000 signatures to a peace petition which she read on television. The women met at the Maguire children's funeral and formed Women for Peace (renamed Community of the Peace People), which before the end of August held three peace marches, the last of which saw the Protestant women of the Shankill Road area receiving the Catholics from the Falls area at an assembly of over 35,000. With this broad-based non-sectarian character similar rallies continued elsewhere in Northern Ireland for the remainder of the year as well as supporting rallies in Dublin and London.
Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, condemned the movement as "one-sided and deceptive" and for duping thousands of well-meaning people. There were physical attacks on the marchers for "selling-out" and Corrigan and Williams were suspected by both sides of "collaborating with the enemy." At times they were severely beaten and their lives threatened. However, they persisted spreading their word of peace throughout the world. It worked. International sympathy evoked hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to the peace movement.
In October 1977 a belated Nobel Peace Prize for 1976 was awarded to Corrigan and Williams, who also received honorary doctorates from Yale University and the Carl von Ossietzky Medal for Courage from the Berlin chapter of the International League for Human Rights. Corrigan was convinced that only reeducating the entire populace would stop the killing. "Unfortunately we never question our educational system. If we stop to evaluate a lot of our old ideas and concepts, we find that they're myths, that they're false; and that bigotry has created the fear and hatred that divides our peoples." Williams also found no sense in the violence, and in response to IRA calls for peace with justice she responded, "Where was the justice in the death of a child not yet three years old. … All I could see was that young men and boys of my area were becoming violent, aggressive, almost murderers; and that they were rapidly becoming the heroes of my community. Was that justice?"
By early 1978 the popular enthusiasm for the movement had waned. In addition, there appeared personal criticisms of the founders, who had been accepting an honorarium for their activities in view of their having given up their regular employment to devote full-time attention to the cause. Keeping a portion of the $140,000 Nobel Peace Prize enabled them to give up the honorarium but intensified such criticism even though a large part of the prize money went to the organization. The travels and renown of both ladies naturally invited jealousy and accusations of personal ambition. Accordingly, Corrigan and Williams resigned the leadership of the Peace People that year to give others a turn at directing the movement, although they remained active members.
Even before this the movement, which from the beginning had the journalistic and organizational advice of Ciaran McKeown, a Belfast correspondent for the Irish Press, had changed its tactics from mass rallies to lower level small group meetings, especially in troubled neighborhoods. It also sought to stimulate local community efforts for better youth recreational facilities and even to the encouragement of local industry. The group's criticism of established politicians was met by the politicians' disregard of a movement which was inherently outside of politics and regular political institutions. Furthermore, the Peace People had directed criticism at the authorities and the security forces as well as at the terrorists.
The tragedy that had inspired the formation of the peace group, the deaths of the Maguire children, was compounded on January 21, 1980, when their distraught mother Anne took her own life. The following year Mairead Corrigan married her widowed brother-in-law Jack Maguire, who had two surviving children, and they had a son. Corrigan-Maguire returned to the Community of Peace People (a.k.a. Peace People Organization) traveling throughout the world with her message of non-violent solutions to the world's great problems.
In 1982 Betty Williams married an educator, James T. Perkins with whom she has a daughter. She moved to Florida with her family in 1986 after 10 years of struggling for peace in Northern Ireland. She traveled the state lecturing for a nuclear freeze, and against the death penalty in keeping with her views of non-violence and justice. She also wrote children's fiction.
The rhetorical disregard by Corrigan and Williams for the political process obviously was insufficient for formulating a permanent solution to the Northern Irish problem. However, they were able to dramatically and memorably demonstrate to the province and the world the outrage in both communities at the bloodletting of the terrorists. Their own essentially non-political backgrounds made them appropriate figures for making such a statement for an end to violence. The peace movement must have had not a small part in explaining the striking reduction in casualties since 1976, as the number of deaths from violence dropped by about one-half to an annual average of under 100. In September 1994, the IRA called a cease fire in Northern Ireland and the following month most of the violent Protestant groups followed suit. These actions led to peace talks with the governments of Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Great Britain. Sein Fein's leader Gerry Adams was also included in the discussions. Without the efforts of Corrigan-Maguire and Williams-Perkins, the peace process might never have been initiated. In an interview in 1993, Corrigan defined the philosophy that was the core of her involvement in the peace movement "I respect the life of each human person, and I will never take another human life. And that is my strongest identity, before any flag or religion. We need to recognize that life is sacred and that we are involved in a mystery. The human family is struggling toward a new kind of identity, allowing us to see people in the South of Ireland, people in England, people in Burma, people in Chicago as our brothers and sisters, who deserve absolute respect for their lives, opinions and welfare."
Further Reading on Corrigan and Williams
A study of both women appeared the year immediately after the peace movement started: Richard Deutsch, Mairead Corrigan/Betty Williams (1977). Marcia Conta's Women for Human Rights (1979) offers a general description of the women. More information about the peace movement and Mairead Corrigan's involvement can be found in the April 20, 1994 issues of the Christian Century's article Toward a higher identity: an interview with Mairead Corrigan Maguire. For a general understanding of the issues see Paul Arthur, The Government and Politics of Northern Ireland (1980); Patrick Buckland, A History of Northern Ireland (1981); and Padraig O'Malley, The Uncivil Wars (1983).