Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan: a recollection of the origins of the Peace People

As a young reporter  at the Finaghy Road North scene of the tragic death of her sister’s three children,  I inadvertently broke the news on camera to Mairead Corrigan that the third child had died. It was a moment that echoed the horror of the terrible event itself.   After Mairead’s powerful appeal for peace – one of so many from victims and survivors  in those years –  there followed  the scathing interview with a near neighbour across the invisible interface, Betty Williams. who has just died .

The incident was one of those moments when the Troubles took off as an international story: the biggest funerals ever seen  in west Belfast until the hunger strike six years later; the founding of a movement that developed a peace ideology; apotheosis of a kind with the joint award of the Nobel Peace Prize  a few months later. Even for me it was quite a journey from Finaghy Road North to the Konserthuset in Oslo.

For a moment it looked as if a surge for peace might have swamped the mainsprings of sectarian violence. But it was not to be. Behind the surface reverence shown to them,   even the  “constitutional”  politicians by and large stayed  aloof from the caravan, nor wishing to be superseded by these grass roots unaligned interlopers. Ciaran Mc Keown a journalist with a mission for peace joined to develop the idea of a peace strategy and earned for himself a reputation as something of a Svengali. Like many such movements the Peace People began to acquire a bigger reputation abroad than at home. This was unfair as their best legacy survives in the myriad interactions that keep the peace to this day.

Did Betty and Mairead personally drink the cup of peace or share a poisoned chalice? A bit of both I think. There were hurt feelings and back biting about a fur coat when Betty kept the money, by no means the only time that this caused controversy with a joint award. And of course they suffered from our old levelling, negative culture “who do you think you are?”

For the Corrigan family the loss of the children was only the beginning of tragedy.  Nobel celebrity added to the personal trauma that sparked the award itself. Betty Williams became more of a prophet in an international peace network than at home and seemed something of a lost soul. Their Northern Ireland successors with the Peace Prize Trimble and Hume were altogether more experienced and robust individuals in more promising circumstances. Peace it turned out could not be won over the heads  of paramilitaries and politicians. But goodness, how eloquent and brave  were  Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan  in their time.