#OTD in 1976 – The tragic event involving members of the IRA and British troops occurred in west Belfast that would lead to the creation of the Community of Peace People.

A chase developed with soldiers on Land Rovers following a car driven by a young republican, Danny Lennon, with a passenger on board. The car was speeding down Finaghy Road North when the pursuing soldiers opened fire. Danny Lennon was shot dead.

On this bright, sunny afternoon, Anne (neé Corrigan) Maguire was wheeling a pram along Finaghy Road North. In the pram was six-weeks-old Andrew. Alongside, on her bicycle, was Anne’s daughter Joanne, aged eight and a half, and her toddler son John, aged two and a half. A few yards further along was another son, seven-year-old Mark.

Suddenly, the car containing the dead Danny Lennon and his comrade swerved and crashed through the family group and into the railings of St. John the Baptist school. Joanne and Andrew were killed instantly. John, medically dead was pronounced clinically dead in hospital the following day. Anne was severely injured, suffering leg and pelvic injuries, and brain bruising, and was unconscious for days. Her mind shattered, and haunted by images of the three children she never saw again, she finally took her own life 41 months later.

When the wrecked car, pram and bicycle were removed, local residents set up a little shrine at the mangled railings, and neighbours held a prayer-walk through Riverdale (the estate in which the Corrigan family lived).

To blame either the republicans who initiated the chain of incidents resulting in the deaths, or the soldiers who had shot Danny Lennon as he drove through a heavily populated area in broad daylight, seemed almost profane: the core reaction of the community was one of pure anguish at the needless deaths.

Over the next couple of days, chapels were packed for prayers, groups of people prayed spontaneously at the death site, and local women went from door to door with a petition for an end to the violence. All over the north of Ireland, plans were made for protests against the continuing violence. After her door had been knocked on by petitioning neighbours, a woman called Betty Williams rang a local newspaper. The Irish News, and talked to veteran reporter Tom Samways. She gave out her number asking that anyone who wished to contact her should do so. Meanwhile, Anne Maguire’s sister, Mairead Corrigan, having returned on the evening of 10 August from a holiday, accompanied her brother-in-law Jackie Maguire to the hospital, for the formal indentification of his dead children. Afterwards, she went down to the television studio and asked to go on the UTV programme in order to make an appeal for an end to violence. This appeal moved people around the world (also on BBC). She later contacted Mrs. Williams to thank her to her reaction to the news of the death of the children.

Ciaran McKeown, correspondent for the Dublin-based Irish Press group, and honorary editor of Fortnight Magazine, had just returned to work on the afternoon of 10 August, and during which he had begun to write a ‘philosophy of peace’. He did not know either Betty Williams or Mairead Corrigan and was covering the reaction in west Belfast and throughout the north of Ireland to the tragedy.

Curiously, the local parish priest was on holiday and was temporarily relived by a missionary priest who had worked most of his mission in India and was familiar with the Ghandian movement there in the Forties and afterwards. Following a conversation with him, McKeown, himself committed to nonviolence and a community activist in his own neighbourhood of Ballynafeigh, wrote a feature that week on ‘What would Gandhi do in Belfast?’.

On the day of the Maguire children’s funeral, 13 August, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan were invited to take part in a current affairs programme, Seven Days, broadcast by Ireland’s RTE from the BBC’s studios in central Belfast. Also to appear were Ciaran McKeown, the latter as a journalist expert on both politics and paramilitary underworlds. In the event both Williams and Corrigan arrived too late and the programme went ahead without them. It was after this programme that McKeown met Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan for the first time.

Thus they became the leaders of a Movement called the ‘Peace People’. Williams, Corrigan and McKeown travelled the world giving speeches and encouraging peace work, but they were also faced with criticism from both loyalists and nationalists, and came up against controversy a number of times with church leaders – which a few times resulted in resignations from peace movement leaders. However, on 10 December 1977, both Williams and Corrigan were awarded the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo for their efforts.

By April 1978, McKeown announced that the three co-founders would be stepping down from the Executive Committee and Williams stated that this was in order to let other people who had been working behind the scenes to have a chance to make decisions. In the following months, Williams and Corrigan travelled to New York to address the UN at a convention, was received by the Pope for a private discussion, and toured coast to coast in the US rallying support for peace in the north of Ireland.

By 1979, people began to become ‘disenchanted’ with the Peace People as ‘the movement, which had started as a bringing together of ordinary people, had become too sophisticated and the nerve centre in Belfast had lost touch with the working class.’ The fact that both women kept their prize money, instead of donating it or using it within Peace People, left many people bitterly disappointed. In February 1980 Williams resigned over the dismissal of Projects Manager Peter McLachlan, and Corrigan became chairman. Controversy surrounded the Peace People for days as it was not disclosed why McLachlan was sacked and while they assured the public that Williams had not resigned over the dismissal of McLachlan, she later revealed that it was for this reason exactly.

Shortly after her resignation, Williams moved to Florida where she remarried in 1982. She continued to tour America extensively. Corrigan’s sister committed suicide in 1980 and in September 1981 she married her late sister’s widower, Jackie Maguire. They had two children together. She became very involved in a number of campaigns on behalf of political prisoners and in 2006 she co-founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative along with Williams and four others in an attempt ‘to help strengthen work being done in support of women’s rights around the world.’

The Peace People movement faced a lot of scrutiny and controversy. Some charged it with being more anti-Republican than anti-UDA, and others maintain that it doesn’t deserve the credit it got.

Betty Williams, Mairead Corrigan

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