Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan

Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan

Betty Williams and  Mairead Corrigan
Betty Williams (left) and Mairead Corrigan.

When Egil Aarvik, vice-chairman of the committee presented the postponed 1976 prize to Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan in 1977, he began his speech with a graphic description of the tragic accident that had occurred the previous August on a street in Belfast in Northern Ireland. A car out of control, its driver an Irish Republican Army (IRA) gunman shot dead fleeing from British soldiers, smashed into a family out for a walk. Two of the children were killed outright, the third was mortally injured, and the mother critically injured.

This senseless killing of innocent children produced a wave of revulsion against the violence which had been sweeping Northern Ireland, with Catholic IRA members using murder and terror to drive out the British, Protestant extremists doing the same in response, and many innocent victims killed as a consequence. The movement was led by Betty Williams, a housewife who came upon the scene after she heard the shot, and Mairead Corrigan, the young aunt of the dead children.

Aarvik told how the two women led marches in which Protestants and Catholics walked together in demonstrations for peace and against violence. That so many people in Northern Ireland had recognized that violence cannot bring social justice, Aarvik declared, gave hope that this could be “the dawn of a new day bringing lasting peace to the sorely tried people of Ulster.”

Williams and Corrigan “have shown us what ordinary people can do to promote peace.” They had the courage to take the first step. “They did so in the name of humanity and love of their neighbour; someone had to start forgiving. … Love of one’s neighbor is one of the foundation stones of the humanism on which our western civilization is built.” It is vitally important that it “should shine forth when hatred and revenge threaten to dominate.” Theirs was “a courageous unselfish act that proved an inspiration to thousands, that lit a light in the darkness…”

Unfortunately, that light was dimmed in Northern Ireland until very recently. The Peace People, the organization which emerged from the movement, declined in numbers and influence. Betty Williams emigrated to the United States, where she teaches in a university and has become a stirring lecturer on peace. Mairead Corrigan Maguire has continued to work with the Peace People in Belfast and has also effectively carried her message of nonviolence into other countries. Quakers in the seventeenth century thought of themselves as “God’s ordinaries.” When ordinary people rise to face challenge, they may go far beyond the ordinary.

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