Betty Williams

1976 Nobel Peace Laureate

Sometimes a Nobel Peace Laureate is created in an instant. Such is the case with Betty Williams, a native of Belfast, Ireland, whose intuitive, immediate response to a senseless act of violence created the Northern Ireland Peace Movement.

Having grown up in Belfast, Williams–the first child of a Catholic mother and Protestant father–was sickened by the increasing violence in her community. In 1973, a British soldier was shot before her eyes, but even that horror did not prepar e her for the event she would witness three years later.

On August 10, 1976, a getaway car bearing an IRA gunman lost control when its driver was fatally shot by pursuing British soldiers. The careening car slammed into Anne Maguire and her three young children who were out for a stroll in the sunshine. Will iams, who lived in the neighborhood where the incident took place, heard the sound of the car smashing into an iron fence alongside where the Maguires had been walking and ran to investigate. First on the scene, she was appalled by what she saw–two c hildren dead, a third mortally wounded, and the mother critically injured.

Herself a mother of two, the 34-year-old Williams was overwhelmed by a passionate desire to take a stand against the violence that precipitated nightmares like the one before her. As soon as she could leave the accident site, she acted on her instincts and began canvassing her neighbors. Within two days she had collected 6,000 signatures on a petition that demanded peace and a stop to the violence. Despite fear of reprisals against her by Ireland’s warring factions, she appealed to Ireland’s women–both Catholic and Protestant–to work with her to rid their community of "this riffraff" in a local television broadcast.

Her appeal generated a response from many people, including Mairead Maguire Corrigan, Anne Maguire’s sister and aunt to the three slain children. Together, Williams and Corrigan organized a peace march of 10,000 Protestant and Catholic women. The marchers were physically assaulted by members of the Irish Republican Army, a violent pro-independence group, who called them dupes of the British. Nonetheless, they succeeded in their trek to the gravesites of the Maguire children. A week later, 35,000 B elfasters marched for peace from a Catholic area of the city to a Protestant area–again led by Williams and Corrigan.

Newspaper reporter Ciaran McKeown joined the women’s efforts. They embraced his suggestion to form an organization called the Community of Peace People, which had a dual mission to help end sectarian fighting in Northern Ireland and to provide ser vices for victims of the area’s violence. The resulting peace movement attracted worldwide publicity.

Few would have thought a peace movement possible, especially in such a short amount of time. Ever since England’s King Henry VIII (1509-1547) sent Protestants to colonize Ireland and wrest control away from the country’s Gaelic and Roman Cath olic native population, Williams’ homeland had been plagued by violence. Through the centuries, Irish Catholics had staged numerous rebellions to regain their country’s independence from Britain, while Irish Protestants, loyal to the British uni on, had steadfastly countered to maintain English control.

Following World War I, pro-independence guerilla groups, such as the IRA, wore down British resolve. In 1922, England established by treaty the Irish Free State, a 26-county area in the south of Ireland whose population is predominately Catholic. Exclu ded from this treaty were six counties in Northern Ireland, which contained a Protestant majority. While the treaty was a step in the direction of Irish independence, it gave England continuing control over a large area of the country indefinitely. The IR A and Sinn Fein, another pro-independence organization, repudiated the treaty.

Fifteen years after its creation, the Irish Free State revised its constitution to remove all references to British sovereignty, asserting its jurisdiction over all 32 counties on the island. In 1949, it became the Republic of Ireland, and in the decad es to follow, the IRA campaign for a unified Ireland intensified. In the late 1960s Britain sent military troops to Northern Ireland to act as a police force, but the action only escalated the violence between the IRA and groups loyal to Britain.

As the capital of Northern Ireland, Belfast was a frequent target for unbridled IRA bombings and murders–primarily against British soldiers, but also against Protestant and Catholic civilians. Protestant extremists formed paramilitary units such a s the Ulster Freedom Fighters, which countered the IRA’s violence with similar acts of their own.

It was against this backdrop of spiraling violence that Betty Williams said "enough." For her efforts in trying to bring peace to Northern Island, she received the 1976 Carl von Ossietsky Medal for Courage from the Berlin section of the Inter national League of Human Rights. Williams was also jointly honored with Corrigan as a recipient of the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for their grassroots work that spawned the Northern Ireland Peace Movement.

In presenting the prize to Williams and Corrigan, Norwegian Nobel Committee vice-chairman Egil Aarvik said, "One of the reasons why the women proved so successful in their campaign is that on both sides of the frontline, a desperate yearning for p eace had taken root. What Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan said re-echoed the thoughts of tens of thousands, and in this way they became the spokesmen of the desire for a commonsense approach that filled the average man and woman–despite their fee ling of helplessness in the face of violence."

In 1978 Williams and Corrigan stepped down from their leadership roles in the Peace People. Eventually Williams emigrated to the United States. In the 22 years since receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, she has traveled around the world, lecturing on peace and working with fellow laureates to advance the cause of peace.

Williams has received numerous honors since receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, such as an honorary Doctor of Law degree from Yale University, the Schweitzer Medallion for Courage, the Martin Luther King Jr. Award, and the Eleanor Roosevelt Award. In 1992 , Texas Governor Ann Richards appointed Williams to the Texas Commission for Children and Youth.

Acting on her special interest in promoting the safety and well-being of children, Williams founded the World Centers of Compassion for Children (WCCC) in 1997. A non-profit organization headquartered in Gulf Breeze, Florida, the organization is dedica ted to creating "safe and nurturing environments" for children in areas devastated by war, conflict, and poverty. Williams serves as president of WCCC. She is also chairwoman of the Institute for Asian Democracy in Washington, D.C., and most rec ently was named a member of the International Honorary Committee for the 25th anniversary for the Children’s Defense Fund.