It was the kind of exchange of mindless violence that wreaks havoc on those who are innocently going about their lives in war zones of all times and places. In this case, it was in Belfast in 1976. IRA members fired on a British patrol. The British returned fire, killing the IRA driver. His car ran up on a sidewalk where Anne Maguire was shopping with three of her children, killing two of them before their mother’s eyes and injuring the third so badly that he died the next day. Betty Williams saw the accident and ran to help. She’d grown up in Belfast and seen deadly violence up close before, but this incident was the last straw for her. She began collecting signatures and organized a march of women protesting the endless cycle of violence. The 200 or so marchers passed by the house of Mairéad Corrigan, who was the aunt of the three children who were killed, sister of Anne Maguire. Corrigan came out and joined the march, and not long after that, she and Williams had planned another march, this time of 10,000 women to the graves of Joanne, John, and Andrew Maguire. The organization of Protestants and Catholics that they founded, the Community of Peace People (changed from Women for Peace when Ciaran McKeown joined them in leadership), pressed constantly for the battling parties to sit down together, and served loyalists and republicans equally, for example by arranging buses for people of all religions and political persuasions to visit their imprisoned family members. As they mobilized hundreds of thousands of war-exhausted, grieving people in Ireland and England, the fatalities in Northern Ireland fell dramatically. The Peace People’s declaration was signed by over 100,000 people:
We have a simple message to the world from this movement for Peace.
We want to live and love and build a just and peaceful society.
We want for our children, as we want for ourselves, our lives at home, at work, and at play to be lives of joy and Peace.
We recognise that to build such a society demands dedication, hard work, and courage.
We recognise that there are many problems in our society which are a source of conflict and violence.
We recognise that every bullet fired and every exploding bomb make that work more difficult.
We reject the use of the bomb and the bullet and all the techniques of violence.
We dedicate ourselves to working with our neighbours, near and far, day in and day out, to build that peaceful society in which the tragedies we have known are a bad memory and a continuing warning.
Williams and Corrigan were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that year. Alfred Nobel described the intent of the award quite narrowly–the recipient “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”–but the committee recognized the power of a grassroots movement. A peace congress probably wouldn’t have made much difference, but thousands of people demanding peace, over and over, in a grassroots movement all over two lands, most certainly did good work for fraternity–and sorority–between those two nations. Both women continue to agitate for peace to this day.