Walking along in the funeral procession behind the casket of her friend Anne Maguire, Betty Williams experienced once again the familiar welling up of sorrow and rage. “I felt like screaming,” she says. In a single bloody decade of religious violence in Northern Ireland nearly 2,000 men, women and children had already died. Now came Anne Maguire, perhaps the most tragic victim of all.
On Aug. 10, 1976 an IRA getaway car, its driver shot dead by British soldiers, careened onto a Belfast sidewalk, killing three of Maguire’s children. The mother survived her own injuries, but was ravaged by the memory. She attempted suicide six times; on the seventh, she succeeded. “We tried so hard to help her,” recalls Williams tearfully. “How can a woman lose one child, let alone three, and not suffer terribly?”
Paradoxically, out of Anne Maguire’s early suffering came a glimmer of hope for Ulster. Galvanized by the tragedy, Williams and Maguire’s sister, Mairead Corrigan, organized the country’s first mass movement for peace. Seemingly out of nowhere came the six Northern counties’ silent majority, Catholics linking arms with Protestants, marching to demand that the bloodletting cease. For their inspiration and courage, Williams and Corrigan were awarded the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize.
Today the killing continues in Ireland, and the peace movement has lost its novelty and momentum. Williams and Corrigan have been stoned, kicked and spat upon. Threatening mail has come by the bushel. “The Nobel,” says Williams, “was our crucifixion. It created a tremendous amount of jealousy and destructive criticism that just will not let down.” Both women were reviled for deciding to keep the prize money (about $70,000 each) rather than donate it to the peace movement directly. The reason they did so, says Williams, was that the movement had been paying them salaries and they wanted to use the money to become self-sufficient. “Logically, this was the correct way of handling it,” Williams maintains, “but in the context of Northern Ireland we should have refused because of the gossip it caused.”
Another casualty of the past three and a half years has been Betty’s marriage to a maritime engineer, Ralph Williams. They separated at her instigation, though neither has sought a divorce. “There was simply too much friction,” she says. “The smallest thing would cause an argument. I couldn’t go out and work for peace in the world if there was none in my own home.” Her greatest pleasure now, she says, is to simply “shut the door” and be alone with her children, Paul, 16, and Deborah, 8.
Though the movement has not brought about peace—that may have been too much to ask—Williams believes it is inaccurate to say it has failed. “People have been saying that for three years, trying to kill us,” she says, “but we won’t lie down. The movement is sad, but alive.” While the world press concentrates on the killing in Ulster (“I’d like to kick them in the groin,” mutters Williams), the peace people carry out their missions virtually unnoticed—resettling families, organizing integrated camps for Catholic and Protestant youngsters, and keeping lines of communication open among their parents at the neighborhood level. “At first we expected peace to happen too quickly,” Williams says, with disappointment and stubborn resilience. “Now we think of it as a 20-to-30-year program.”