by Alon Liel
and Yehuda Litani
The following is a chapter from their new book “Niazi's Rule”, which will be published in Hebrew about Northern Ireland, Cyprus and Israel/Palestine.
Mairead Maguire, born Mairead Corrigan to a Catholic working class family, is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and one of the organizers of the big Belfast peace marches in 1976. She has dedicated her adult life to issues of social justice and peace-building work in Ireland and, together with fellow activist Betty Williams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977. In recent years Maguire has been active in conflict resolution around the world, including the Middle East. She was among the activists of the October 2010 Gaza flotilla and the Women’s Boat to Gaza initiative in 2016, and was among the activists that were arrested and later deported from Israel. She has also marched in demonstrations against the construction of the Separation Barrier in Bil’in in the West Bank, and is a supporter of Israeli anti-nuclear activist Mordechai Vanunu. Maguire was interviewed by Alon Liel and Yehuda Litani at her office in Belfast, where she coordinates, without any support staff, her activities in hot spots all over the world.
Please tell us about your childhood and youth
I was born in the Lower Falls neighborhood in 1944 to Catholic parents. My father was a contractor for cleaning windows and my mother was a housewife. I had six sisters and two brothers. We grew up in a very religious environment and the family was close and tight-knit. We lived in a small house, we were not rich, but the atmosphere at home was safe and loving. There was a lot of mutual help within the family, a bit like in Jewish families. At the age of 12, I thought I was going to be a nun, but I had abandoned the idea by age 16. At that time the relations between Catholics and Protestants were reasonable; we lived together and went out together. I don’t recall any tension. My father was a unique personality; he educated us to ignore differences between people and to relate to their common humanity, not to their differences.
When I was 14, my teachers recommended to my parents that I continue with my studies and go on to university, but circumstances didn’t allow it. Since at that time boys had priority when it came to higher education and the family needed money, I went to learn shorthand and secretarial skills. I succeeded in my studies and started to work at the age of 16. My first employer was a Jewish accountant who had a Protestant partner. That was the first time I ever met a Jew. From there I went on to an engineering firm and later worked at the huge Guinness beer company, where I started out as secretary to the general manager of beer brewing in Dublin.
In the meantime my family moved to a better neighborhood in Belfast, a middle-class neighborhood called Andersons Town. This was real upward social mobility for us. After work hours at Guinness, I did volunteer work for the Catholic community, most of which was centered around the church. I liked people and I liked to help.
I remember that in the 1960s I was also asked to help promote Protestant-Catholic cooperation, but at the time I preferred to continue to help within our community, because there were so many social problems.
All this was before the riots.
What happened when the riots broke out?
The riots began in 1968-1969. At the time I wasn’t married. I had a lively social life: parties, films and theater, in addition to my job and the community activism.
The riots changed everything. They began in Lower Falls, the neighborhood where I was born and raised, and where my aunt lived on Norfolk Street. We heard that young Protestants were banishing Catholics from the area by burning down their houses. So I rushed to the place and saw young men from the Loyalist community setting fires, while the Catholic residents grabbed what they could save, hurried to their cars and fled from their houses. The police observed from the sidelines and didn't do a thing. They could not bring themselves to arrest the youths. This was a big problem. The police — Royal Ulster Constabulary, or RUC, as the Northern Irish police were called from 1922 until 2000 — were made up of 93% Protestants, and their attitude towards the Catholic community was hostile and discriminatory.
My Aunt Maggie’s house was burned down. I remember helping her salvage some things from the house and flee to our neighborhood school in Andersons Town, where many of the Catholics took refuge. My life changed after the arson. In the morning I worked at Guinness and in the evening I helped the refugees in the school. There were hundreds of panic-stricken refugees. Many of them couldn't sleep at night and cried for hours. We tried our best to calm them and regularly brought them food from our homes.
My Aunt Maggie eventually received a substitute apartment from the government. She really disliked the apartment and kept saying that she felt “buried” there. We're not apartment people; we grew up in houses and she missed her home. I remember the arson stories as a traumatic period. I recall that during the flight from the Norfolk Street flames, in August 1969, I saw an expensive set of china in the middle of the street that nobody touched. The street was full of people running past it; they neither damaged nor took it. A few months later, I went to visit a local family that had managed to return home, in an attempt to aid and encourage them. The mother of the family served us tea and I immediately recognized the set of china that had been sitting in the middle of the street. She told me that nobody had touched it for days; when she returned to the neighborhood, she found it and brought it back home. That made a big impression on me. I realized that in all those riots there hadn’t been the slightest criminal motive; there had been no desire to rob or steal property. It was pure political persecution.
The conditions in the school where the Catholic refugees were staying became unbearable. Some of the families moved into trailers. Then the winter hit hard. During one of my visits to these families a young woman told me that her baby had died of pneumonia due to the cold and damp. I was shaken to the core. We were all in shock. We hadn’t been prepared for the severe consequences of the riots.
The riots and the arson continued, and soon enough Catholics, too, began burning down Protestant homes. Catholic nationalist politicians called on the British army to come and protect the Catholic minority which was not armed at that time. When the British army entered Lower Falls, the neighborhood where I was born, they were met with cups of tea. When they first arrived, the British were seen as protectors of the Catholic residents. But what followed was totally different.
When did you become a peace activist?
All this time I had really been an ordinary citizen from an ordinary family, though with a higher than average level of social involvement. The event that changed my life happened in August 1976. My sister Ann, who is a year younger than me, was walking in the street with her four children. She was on her way to a neighbor’s house to drop off the children before her daily visit to my mother. Ann lived very close to my parents and this was her regular route. At that very moment a young man from the Irish Republican Army (IRA) named Danny Lennon attempted to shoot a British policeman who was patrolling the area with his partner. The shot missed the policeman and when Lennon fled, the British foot patrol summoned a patrol car and pursued him, shot him in the head and killed him. Lennon’s car drove up on the sidewalk and hit my sister and her children. Three of her children were killed, my sister was very seriously injured and one child, Mark, was saved.
Ann was a very brave woman. One of the first things she did afterward was to visit Danny Lennon’s mother. When I asked her why, she replied: “Because she lost a son, too.” Ann didn’t identify with Irish nationalist activity; we weren’t radicals. But she identified with the mother’s sorrow. After the funeral of Ann’s three children, I paid a condolence call to Mrs. Lennon, too.
Both Ann and I were taught to forgive. My father always told us not to let the sun set while we were still angry. We inherited this unique forgiveness from my father.
This story still shocks us more than thirty years later. What happened to Mark, who survived the terrible accident?
My sister Ann and her husband Jackie decided to move to New Zealand with little Mark. There she gave birth to a daughter, Joanne, but they weren’t happy and they returned to Ireland, where they had another daughter, Louise. Ann and Jackie tried to rebuild their family, but one day, in January 1980, Mark came home from school and found his mother’s body lying in the house. Ann had committed suicide from a broken heart. She never recovered psychologically from the family tragedy. What happened to Ann is what happens to many victims of violent conflicts all over the world: They never really get over the loss.
So this horrifying story turned you into a peace activist?
Immediately after the accident I went to the hospital with Jackie. I stood by his side when the doctors told him: "Two of your children were killed. The third one is going to die and your wife won’t manage to recover, either." The media were waiting for us outside the hospital room. Jackie spoke against the IRA and against the violence. That’s when I turned to him and asked him if he would agree that from now on I should do everything in my power to stop this terrible violence. In what was an act totally out of character, I went on the television and said that the violence had to stop.
The vicious cycle of violence led many Irish citizens to the conclusion that there was no military solution, that violence only brings more violence. This atmosphere of despair is what enabled Irish civil society at that time to rise up and stop the deterioration. We encouraged people to build peace from the ground up — you can’t build a house from the top down, it’s the same with building peace. We called on the public to make peace, and hundreds of thousands of people responded positively. The day after the funeral of the three children, on August 13, 1976, we were already holding a peace march in the heart of Andersons Town. Three activists, Betty Williams, a young journalist named Kearn and I decided to institutionalize the activity and to establish a peace movement together. “The violence must stop” — this was our message to the IRA, the British army and the politicians alike. We started to gather signatures and advocated holding protest marches every Sunday for six months. These marches indeed took place all over Northern Ireland and soon spread outside of Ireland to England, Scotland and Wales. On Christmas 1976, we held our last march in Trafalgar Square in London, a march that brought our activities to new heights.
Did you return to work at Guinness after the marches?
The day of the accident, I was driving from work, on my way to a holiday, when I heard on the radio about what had happened to Ann and the children. In retrospect that was my last day at Guinness. In the aftermath of the event I didn’t return to work, even though they held my position for me for a long time. I realized what I had to do.
My life changed completely, including at the personal level. After Ann’s suicide I helped Jackie take care of their three children. As time went on we fell in love and we married in 1981. We had two children of our own in addition to my sister’s three children. Today we have a family of five children and a wonderful life.
In 1977 you received the Nobel Peace Prize
Betty, Kearn and I organized the peace marches. During the period of the marches there was a 70% reduction in the level of violence, and since then Ireland has never returned to the level of violence of the years 1969- 1976. The marches gave the public the sense that it was possible to work together for peace. Betty is a Catholic who is married to a Protestant and Kearn is Catholic, too. Even though the three of us were Catholics, we asked people to go beyond nationalism, tribalism and religious identification. We were different from the already existent civil rights movement, which acted in the spirit of Martin Luther King to prevent discrimination at the level of the individual. We explicitly called for Irish Unity. We understood that majority rule is not necessarily democratic. As long as there is a minority that is not included in the political process, there will always be frustration, anger and despair, and this was what we experienced in Northern Ireland.
We were already nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 but the prize wasn't granted that year. That same year the Norwegian media crowned us as having the most important peace project of the year and called on the Norwegian public to support us financially. In 1977 it was decided that we would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Amnesty International for the years 1976 and 1977. We invested the prize money that we received, some $200,000, in the purchase of the Peace House in Belfast, where we are sitting right now which formerly belonged to the nearby church. Renting out the rooms in the house provides us with an income that enables the continuation of our activity to this very day.
How did your childhood friends react to this intensive peace activity?
When I was growing up, only a few families in our area could be defined as nationalist. As a child I wasn’t even aware of the existence of the IRA or of the question of Irish unification. Only when I was older did I realize that we in fact had a Protestant parliament that acted in the interests of the Protestant community and that there was severe discrimination against Catholics, especially in the area of employment. Our politicians didn’t have the wisdom to integrate the [Catholic] minority, and that led to the explosion of violence in 1969. Had we the knowledge then that we have today, we might have succeeded in getting the situation under control.
When Betty, Kearn and I began to preach unity and building mutual trust, many others around us continued to preach hatred and revenge. We received threatening letters, and they even set fire to our cars. Good friends of my father’s stopped talking to him because of my peace activity. The IRA saw us as “traitors to the cause.” There were also attacks on our marches, but fortunately no marchers were injured.
What happened to Ann’s son Mark? Did he become a symbol of the peace process? Is he in the public eye today?
Today Mark works as engineer. He married a local girl, a teacher and writer of Russian descent, and they have three children. He lives next to us and he is happy. He didn’t become a symbol, he is neither involved in politics nor under public scrutiny. There are so many families who suffered losses, and this, in a way, allowed him to disappear from the public eye. Fortunately Mark received a lot of love and support, which enabled him to recover over time.
Will the peace you achieved in Ireland last? Opinions are divided on that matter
I believe that we won’t return to a period of armed struggle. We’ve passed that stage. We reached an agreement to resolve disputes by democratic means. Nevertheless, despite the fact that we’ve changed our habits of thinking, we still need to work hard to build mutual trust. The struggle in Ireland is not religious. It's a British-Irish struggle, an ethnic struggle. At the time, the Catholic-Protestant conflict made headlines because the religious issue is an easy one to identify, but religion was never what the real struggle was about. There are still fears on both sides. The “Good Friday Agreement” was intended to deal with the fears. We need to reach people’s hearts and to stop fearing one another.
What are your conclusions regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict?
I’ve been to your region six times. I also visited Auschwitz with Elie Wiesel. Both Israeli and Palestinian societies need to undergo a process of change. The movements that oppose violence must be helped. Likewise, there is a need for leaders who are willing to approach extremist elements in each society and include them in the process, rather than pushing them away. These are my conclusions from my visits to the area.