Northern Ireland

Peace People: Organisation born out of tragedy marks 40th anniversary

Mairead Corrigan
Image caption Mairead Corrigan founded the Peace People with Betty Williams in 1976

This month marks 40 years since two Belfast women formed the Peace People movement, a community-led reaction to the Troubles which had flared up around them.

It was born out of tragedy after three children were killed when a car plunged into them and their mother on 10 August 1976.

The driver, IRA man Danny Lennon, had been fatally wounded by a British Army patrol which was chasing him.

After the tragedy, the children's aunt, Mairead Corrigan, spoke to journalists.

"We went down this morning to the morgue and we saw two little ones and just to hear now that the third has gone, having a triple funeral on Friday, it's pretty hard," she said.

"I blame maybe one percent of our community of people who are so misguided and misled and I say to them 'please stop getting the young ones doing things that they don't even want to do. Please stop the violence, people can't take anymore, it's just too much'.

"I blame the Provisional IRA, I blame all men of violence. People who say they're Christians yet they can't practice what God said, love one and other and forgive and forget."

Days later, she began the movement along with her friend, Betty Williams.

'Peaceful society'

The women were soon joined by Belfast journalist, Ciaran McKeown, among others.

Image caption Thousands of people turned out across Northern Ireland to march for peace in 1976

In the weeks and months that followed they organised street groups, opened an office and led marches which drew thousands of people onto the streets demanding an end to violence.

Still active, the group's Facebook page states their continued message: "We want to live and love and build a just and peaceful society."

The Peace People held marches in Belfast, Enniskillen and Ballymena.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption American folk singer Joan Baez (centre) at an Irish Peace People march in London, 6 December 1976

One of their most high-profile rallies was in Trafalgar Square in London where more than 10,000 people demonstrated for peace, while legendary folk singer, and political activist Joan Baez sang the anthem 'We Shall Overcome'.

Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for their efforts in trying to encourage a peaceful resolution to the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

In the subsequent years, the group continued to work for reconciliation in Northern Ireland and around the world.

Speaking to BBC NI's Good Morning Ulster programme on Wednesday, Ms Corrigan, now Mairead Corrigan-Maguire, said the Peace People had been "attacked from many quarters" when it was set up.

'Peace making'

"When we called for the repeal of the emergency legislation, when we called for the implementation of human rights and justice, when we pointed out that violence comes out of injustice and discrimination we were also condemned by others," she said.

"But I think that what we said very clearly in 1976, 'look you need to build a society on human rights and international law and justice and equality but you can solve the problems we're faced with here through non-violence and through peace making'."

She said 40 years on, Northern Ireland was "still facing challenges".

"We have peace and thank God for it, it's wonderful but we're still challenged to build real democracy, uphold human rights.

"We still don't have a bill of rights in Northern Ireland so we've still a lot of work to do to demilitarise our society and have it a peaceful place," she added.

Image caption Mairead Corrigan-Maguire at a protest in Belfast in support of Gaza in 2005

'Pain and loss'

In 2003, Ms Corrigan-Maguire, was arrested at a non-violent prayer protest against the war in Iraq outside the White House in Washington DC.

Ms Corrigan-Maguire was one of five Irish activists deported from Tel Aviv in June 2010 after the ship they were travelling on tried to bring aid to Gaza in defiance of Israel's blockade.

Betty Williams left the Peace People in 1980 and later emigrated to America. She returned to Ireland in 2004.

This weekend, to commemorate their 40th anniversary the Peace People are opening their doors at their premises on the Lisburn Road in Belfast so people can "reflect on how peace and reconciliation has blossomed out of pain and loss".

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