The Nobel Peace Prize 1976
Betty Williams, Mairead Corrigan
Presentation Speech by Egil Aarvik,
Vice-Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, on the occasion of
the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize for 1976 in the University
Festival Hall, Oslo, December 10, 1977.
Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:
On August 10, 1976, a remarkable incident occurred in one of the streets of Belfast in Northern Ireland. A man, in an attempted getaway, comes tearing down the street in his car, trying to shake off his pursuers. Suddenly a shot rings out, and with a mortally wounded driver slumped over the steering-wheel, the vehicle swerves into a fence, knocking down a mother and her three children. The mother, though badly injured, survived, while her three children were killed on the spot.
Surely this incident was not so remarkable? No, unfortunately, it was not. Wherever war stalks the land, and terror and violence erupt, the killing of innocent children is in no way remarkable. Incidents of this kind are merely a logical result of the mindless brutality of war. We have seen and heard this so often that we are in danger of forfeiting the ability to react in horror. Worse still, every single act of violence merely nurtures hatred, fostering in turn more and more violence.
The event in Belfast on that August day in 1976, however, gave rise to something entirely different, and it is for this reason that it was so remarkable.
In the area where the three children were killed lived a housewife: she heard the thud as the car crashed into the fence, and as she hurried to the spot she took in the whole horror of the scene. At that moment something happened in that woman's mind: it was like the bursting of a dam.
What she saw shocked her profoundly; but even more, she was overwhelmed with a passionate desire to make a stand against all violence and terror. Now, for heaven's sake, something must be done! There was no time for deliberation and planning: she never even thought of anything like that, but acted intuitively, as her heart dictated. She started to go from door to door in the actual street where the tragedy had occurred. The cup of horrors had now run over: the time had come when the ordinary man and woman must rise in protest against this senseless use of violence. It was no longer a question of political attitudes or religious convictions. There was only one remedy: the people themselves must cry halt. Radio and television showed a certain amount of interest in the housewife's campaign, and she was given an opportunity of making a broadcast appeal to the Irish people not to capitulate to terror. Peace must not be allowed to sit idly on the touchlines: now, for once, peace must march!
Her appeal found a ready response. More and more people rallied to her call. One of the first to do so was an aunt of the three children, and these two women now marched boldly out into the no-man's land of war, proclaiming their simple, heartening message of reconciliation. From these small beginnings sprang what today, the world over, is known as the Peace Movement of Northern Ireland.
Today, that housewife and the aunt of those three children are with us, and today these two, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, have come to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for 1976.
One of the main reasons why the women proved so successful in their campaign is that on both sides of the frontline a desperate yearning for peace 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 feeling of helplessness in the face of violence.
But more than that, their courageous action cast a fresh light on the very essence of the grievous conflict that racked Northern Ireland. More clearly than ever before it appeared in its true light as a disease that ravaged the whole nation. People's minds had somehow got stuck in a groove: sound common sense could no longer get a hearing. The spirit that was now spread abroad was what the Norwegian poet Bjornstjerne Bjornson called "passions' crying need".
The conflict in Northern Ireland springs from noxious roots deeply embedded in history. Countless attempts have been made to resolve it, so far in vain. Those who endeavoured to speak in the name of moderation appeared to speak to deaf ears. A mood of hopeless resignation prevailed: terror and violence became part and parcel of people's everyday lives. Barricades were thrown up in the streets. Sharp boundary lines divided one part of a town from another. An ominous silence developed between neighbours; even children were trained and committed to the use of violence. Society was at war with itself, and even though reason declared that the use of arms could never bring about a lasting peace, no one was capable of suggesting a viable alternative.
There is something unreal about the turmoil in Northern Ireland, something nightmarish. A peaceful street is suddenly transformed into a theatre of war, and the victims of that war are your own friends and neighbours. Even schoolchildren are fair game. In homes, in shops, in offices, and in pubs and factories the very air is poisoned with suspicion and hatred. No struggle can be more bitter than one fought between people who in reality are so close to one another. This in truth is what might be described as passions' crying need.
It was in a situation of this kind that Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan stood forth; and with unerring instinct they started at the "wrong end" - not at the top, among the shrewd heads that were filled with so much political insight - no, they approached the ordinary men and women of every day, with a clear and simple message: we must put an end to the use of violence and to acts of terrorism. We must build our future on peace and cooperation. War is only senseless and evil, incapable of solving any problem.
It would be simple to maintain that this is all self-evident and that anyone could say this in despair at the meaningless sufferings of war. Yes, but in reality the solution of each and every human conflict is to be found in the simple and obvious action of someone taking the first steps on the road to reconciliation and cooperation.
This, at any rate, is what happened in Northern Ireland. Men and women from both camps came together and marched in demonstrations in support of the peace for which they all longed. Barbed-wire barriers were removed; barricades were torn down, the ominous silence was broken. Neighbours and countrymen shook hands and started to talk together, to live together, and to build together. The reaction to the campaign initiated by Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan was wholesome and genuinely human. It provided a proof of the inspiration that will flow precisely from the simple, the true, and the genuine - which, of course, is also so obviously right.
The Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov once said that in a great many situations we need to formulate ideal goals, even though at any given moment it is impossible to envisage the road that leads to that goal. Without such ideals, too, there can be no hope, and we shall be fumbling in the dark, in a blind alley that offers no hope.
These words of Sakharov's are true as well of Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan. They never claimed that they were in a position to indicate the only royal road that would lead to their goal; but they were in no doubt about the first step that must be taken along this road. There would have to be an end to guerilla warfare and acts of violence; and it should be possible to do this if people would only rise up in protest against the war and join hands in the cause of peace. That would be the first step.
In actual fact, in so doing they struck a devastating blow at the very basis of guerilla warfare, since it goes without saying that, if violence were rejected by the great bulk of the population, guerilla activities would automatically no longer prove viable.
And it is precisely here that the dynamic force of the Northern Irish Peace Movement is to be found: what it declares - and proves in action - is that the people of Northern Ireland, who have lived in a state of confrontation for decades, are now tired of all this. The desire for peace has been given fresh impetus; more and more people realise that terror can never provide an answer to social injustice, and act accordingly.
That so many people in Northern Ireland have recognised this, and have adjusted their lives in conformity with this, is what we all hope may prove to be the first dawn of a new day bringing lasting peace to the sorely tried people of Ulster.
The road leading to lasting peace may yet prove long and arduous, and there are almost certainly a great many people who still doubt whether the Peace Movement can in the long run achieve anything. Admittedly, all too often champions of non-violence have been shouted down, ridiculed, and labelled utopians. The Peace Movement of Northern Ireland must be prepared to face such charges, and have no doubt already had to do so.
One incontrovertible fact remains: they took the first courageous step along the road to peace. They did so in the name of humanity and love of their neighbour: someone had to start forgiving.
Love of one's neighbour is one of the foundation stones of the humanism on which our western civilisation is built. But it is vital that we should have the courage to sustain this love of our neighbour in the very circumstances when the pressure to abandon it is at its greatest - otherwise it is of little worth. This is why it is so important that it should shine forth when hatred and revenge threaten to dominate.
This spirit of human brotherhood is also the foundation for the human rights which we believe are a part of the concept of peace. We must ensure that each and every one of us enjoys the right to a life of human dignity. The future of the world depends on our success in fostering increased respect for this right.
I do not know whether Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan were aware of the consequences when they started their peace movement; but I am quite sure that they have sensed how these forces have gathered strength around them during the time that ensued. They unleashed a fervent desire and hope for peace that was latent in so many minds, and out of this grew a peace movement, almost before they themselves realised it. With poignant simplicity and confidence they have accepted responsibility for something that they started; and they have done this with the close cooperation and excellent assistance of a great many efficient fellow-sympathisers.
No one knows today whether this organised movement will ever achieve its goals; but its leaders have every right to believe and hope and work for the achievement of these goals. In Northern Ireland as well as elsewhere in the world there are a great many people who share their hope and belief. Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan have shown us what ordinary people can do to promote the cause of peace. They have taught us that the peace for which we strive is something that has to be won within and through the individual human being. This is the message to which they have given renewed force through their activities.
Alfred Nobel was constantly concerned with this. Possessed as he was with the questing mind of the inventor, he developed a great many theories on the question of how to secure peace. In 1891 he wrote to a friend that in many critical situations success in achieving a pause in the use of violence would prove decisive. This would provide an opportunity of working still further on this basis. The important thing was to mobilise good will in each of the opposed camps. A basis existed for friendship for all people, and the important thing was merely to discover this basis.
It was with this in mind that he stipulated in his will and testament that his Peace Prize should be awarded to those who had done most to promote the cause of the brotherhood of man.
There are some, no doubt, who will say that this is much too naive in the brutal world familiar to us today. To this Alfred Nobel would probably have said: Give me a single example of progress for mankind which has not been derided by sceptics as utopian and escapist!
The two women who share the Peace Prize for 1976 have refused to bow to bleak scepticism: they simply acted. They never heeded the difficulty of their task: they merely tackled it because they were so convinced that this precisely was what was needed. There was no talk here of ingenious theories, of shrewd diplomacy or pompous declarations. No, their contribution was a far better one: a courageous, unselfish act that proved an inspiration to thousands, that lit a light in the darkness, and that gave fresh hope to people who believed that all hope was gone.
We admire Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan for tackling so fearlessly the perilous task of leading the way into no-man's land, in the cause of peace and reconciliation. It is for this deed that the Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to honour them. What they have done is an example to the world. Their action harmonised with what is the very basis of our civilisation, and it sprang from a vision which shines like a bright torch into the future. What they have built - to quote once again Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson - is:
"A rainbow bridge of prayer above earth's fretful air,
a beacon light for man,
ablaze with Christ's belief that love would conquer grief;
for thus His promise ran."
From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1971-1980, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Irwin Abrams, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1997
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1976