Transcript from an interview with Mairead Corrigan Maguire on 1 September 2006, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Interviewer is freelance journalist Marika Griehsel.
Mrs Mairead Corrigan-Maguire, thank you for being with us here today. It’s 30 years since you really really got involved in the Peace Movement here in Northern Ireland. Would you like to tell us about the circumstances, how you started to work for peace?
Mairead Corrigan: Well, on 10th August 1976 one of my youngest sisters, Anne, went walking four of her children and there was a clash between an active service unit of the Irish Republican Army and the British Army. And the British Army shot the IRA man driving a car, through the head, and his car went up onto a footpath and it pinned my sister, Anne and three of her four children against school railings and all the children were killed and Andrew was only six weeks old. John was 2,5 and Joanne was only eight and the young IRA man, Danny Lennon, was also dead. So my sister was dangerously ill at that time and not expected to live, so some of us got together and we said: This has got to stop. We’ve got to solve our problems another way, because violence doesn’t work. And myself and Betty Williams, whom I met the day the three children were buried, and Ciaran McKeown, a young journalist at the time, the three of us joined together to start what became known as the Peace People, and it was a grass roots spontaneous movement saying we have got to use different ways to solve our problems – that was the beginning of the Peace People.
Betty was a Protestant and you are a Catholic, and you inspired people from the different camps to camp together, what happened then?
Mairead Corrigan: Betty was married to a Protestant, she herself from a Catholic background, and I also was Catholic, but we lived in the West Belfast which was a Catholic community where it suffered tremendously during the troubles, because in that area, it was a working class area, people suffered from violence of both the … The Army was in there and the IRA operated from that area, so it was a great deal of daily violence and then in other working class areas we had loyalist paramilitaries operating as well, so the whole cycle of violence from state violence and paramilitary violence, it was just going round in a cycle of violence. And our message really was look, this problem was not going to be solved through militarism and more paramilitarism and it can only be solved through peaceful ways and dialogue and that was when we begun to hold huge rallies throughout Northern Ireland and people came out to mobilise and say no to violence and yes to dialogue and peace-making.
You started to march, apart from the rallies you also walked and you walked into areas which had been no-go areas and people said to you: No, you’re not welcome, and you marched anyway, I mean it was dangerous at times wasn’t it and you still marched?
Mairead Corrigan: Yes, it was very dangerous. I mean in those days, I mean we got death threats, we had our cars destroyed, some people who walked for peace were put out of their homes, so what we done was highly dangerous but while we organised rallies from August -76 to December -76, every single Saturday throughout Northern Ireland. And rallies were organised in the South of Ireland and indeed England and other countries had rallies in support of us, but why we mobilised people and had rallies was to give people back their sense of dignity, their sense of that they could do something and they could take the stand against violence and even more important, they could begin themselves to look at the root causes of violence and not be paralysed by their fear.
So we went into areas like the Shankhill Road where we knew there were loyalist gunmen and people said: You’d get shot if you walked there, and we said: These are our streets, this is where we live, even if we are afraid we’re going to have the courage and we’re going to take back our communities and overcome our fear. Those rallies were very important because we live in a community that’s deeply divided and where the politics of fear and separation and division are very very deep and where people see each other as being from the other side or the other community. And in a sense we were trying to humanise ourselves and each other and say there’s nothing to be afraid of, but fear ourselves, fear itself and to walk in those communities and to encourage people to start dealing with the problems if they were faced back in their own communities. So it was very effective because in the first six months of the Peace People there was a 70% decrease in the rate of violence and it never returned to that. So it was important to give people a sense of dignity and feeling that they could change the situation and hope. In a situation like this people need hope and we offered people hope that things could change.
Later you were given the Nobel Peace Prize together with Betty. What did you think when they called you to say that you are to receive this prize? How did you react?
Mairead Corrigan: I was very surprised that we got the Nobel Peace Prize. I didn’t particularly think that we deserved the Nobel Peace Prize, but I was also very scared, I was quite frightened of receiving a Nobel Peace Prize because to me it was a lot of responsibility and to carry a Nobel Peace Prize, but also I was very conscious that I knew nothing, like what did I know, I’d come out from very ordinary situation from a very ordinary family and I really didn’t know exactly what to do so it was a very frightening experience. I carried that fear with me for a long time until I learnt to take things more lightly and I realised that because you get a Nobel Prize doesn’t mean you’ve to save the world. So I learnt to more kind of laugh at it than not be so serious, but at the time I was quite scared by it all, it was very frightening.
Did it put new demands on you in your daily life?
Mairead Corrigan: Almost certainly it did, yes. Betty and I received the prize because the people who nominated us. German women, Parliamentarians, thought it was a People’s Movement but I was very disappointed that Ciaran McKeown was not part of the Nobel Prize because in a sense there were three co-founders, it was not a woman’s movement. There were many men in the Peace People, the majority being women but many men, so I was disappointed that Ciaran wasn’t part of that when he was so much part of the trio which worked very very well and encouraged everybody because with three of us there was something for everybody. So I was disappointed that that didn’t happen.
But as you said the time was right for the women to take charge because they had suffered so much as well I mean when you organised the marches and the rallies the women and the children certainly did come out. They said: Enough is enough.
Mairead Corrigan: Oh yes, I mean the vast majority of the people who marched in the rallies were women and women came out, I believe, because in some ways it was safer for women to come out because the men would never attack the women as much as they might have attacked men so it was somewhat safer for women to come out. But I also think that why women came out so much was that women during the troubles were very very worried about the continuing violence on the streets. I mean we had the most recent trouble in Northern Ireland started in -69 so this was -76, so we had seven years of absolute hell in Northern Ireland because the city was bombed out of Belfast.
Every day there was somebody dying, bombing, shootings, killings, people in hundreds in prison, both loyalists and republican, young people emigrating because they couldn’t face such a violent unknown future, so women at night concerned that their young sons would walk into the wrong area in Belfast and end up getting a sectarian murder killings. So I mean women were deeply concerned about their families and seeing an opportunity for to actually come out and do something. So marching for peace every Saturday, going on the rallies, organising their communities, it actually politicised a vast amount of women who then got politically active because peace is not just about walking, though that’s important, it’s also about campaigning and identifying the root causes of the violence and being politically active.
But women did pay that tremendous role, but I also think too women look back through history, women have not played the militaristic role that men have played, you know, essentially women have been coming there for life. They are more for consensus politics, they’re more for looking at different options so I think that women have a tremendous role in the world today. Can you believe if women all around the world said: No more nuclear weapons, no more war, we can’t go on killing each other, we can sit round a table and we can sort this out through dialogue, I mean we are supposed to be civilised, why can’t we solve this through dialogue and I think if women put out that message, they would liberate men out of this mad mentality that somehow militarism solves problems, which we know it doesn’t. So there is a tremendous role now that women could play in cultivating a real culture of non violence, a culture of no killing, culture of dialogue and peace-making. Women can do that. I think that in Northern Ireland we had an insight into that, but then of course you know men and women working together can make a pretty good team.
If we look at the aftermath of 9/11 and we look at what’s happening in the Lebanon recently and then the Palestine/Israel, it seems almost hopeless, are you getting the feeling that some of the leaders of today have not learnt anything? How can we reach out? How can you and other Peace Laureates reach out, is there something that you think one can do?
Mairead Corrigan: I think that we can mobilise and we can march for peace and we can look at how we try to convince our political leaders that the road they’re on, is not going to solve our problems. You see, I’m utterly convinced in 30 years of peace-making and being all around the world, there is a huge people movement of change going on there and once that movement at the base of the community right across the world begins to link up and mobilise, then I think it will be extremely effective, because we have the women’s movement, the environmental movement, the human rights movement, all those movements for social and political change, And what that movement exactly saying is: We don’t want war, we don’t want nuclear weapons, we want human rights to be upheld, we want justice we don’t want poverty, we don’t want to be in a rich world where people are getting richer and richer and the poor’s getting poorer and poorer. We don’t want these things, so how do we get that message through to our political leaders? And I think that’s where the gap is.
I think our political leaders are over here and the people are here, so once we kind of bring that together and we get this message through to those who are taking decisions at the top, I think what we must not do, we mustn’t demonise individual people that by saying: Oh well, then you have this, people doing this and they’re the problem and I mean in a sense we have got to change ourselves, change our communities, begin to solve our problems non-violently leaving aside militarism and war has been old ways of doing things, use the techniques of non-violence and at the top say to the political leaders. You know the current policies are destroying human life, building fear and not solving the problems and I think that message has to also go very strongly to the United States of America. I mean in America, their current policies of increasing nuclear weapons, of pre-emptive strike, of war against terrorist, of removing basic civil liberties and ignoring international laws, all these policies are counter-productive. They don’t solve what are essentially: human problems and problems of injustice and an equality and so they need to use a different approach.
And I do think that Northern Ireland is a model where in -76 our message was very clearly: militarism, paramilitarism, violence doesn’t solve ethnic political problems. You really must sit down round a table and negotiate with your enemies. And Morocco will have to talk to Al Qaeda, Israel will have to talk to Hamas and you can’t bomb people into submission. You have to sit round a negotiating table and negotiate and that is the clear message that comes out of Northern Ireland and this must be the clear message to political leaders. The world can’t be bombed into submission and American Government thinking it can dominate the world and control other countries, that day has gone, the day of imperialism has gone. We need to find new ways of working together, listening to each other, solving the human rights problem and the injustice that is feeding things like suicide bombings and terrorism which are horrific. But you know, we have to look deeper at what is causing suicide bombings and try to deal with the root cause of the problems. Otherwise we’ll just continue to go round in circles of violence.
Do you believe there’s still injustice, inequality, the poverty that people in refugee camps and in areas for example in the Middle East are facing that is feeding this army of people who are prepared to die for this cause?
Mairead Corrigan: Tragically I think that injustice breeds more violence and more injustice and it breeds a politic of despair and anger and frustration. And you know we all have our own human emotions, we all get angry, I get angry and if an injustice is done towards me or to my family, I feel very angry about that. Now how do we deal with that anger? We can feed the anger all the time and we can go out and decide to join paramilitary or an insurgency group or we can feed the seeds of peace, the seeds of compassion and we can transform that anger into practical peace-making and working for justice and working for human rights so we all every day need to feed the seeds of peace, and not the feeds of anger and frustration and despair.
So I would say to young people who are living in situations of tremendous injustice like a young Palestinian living in a refugee camp, feed the seeds of peace and nonviolence and work for justice through the ways of non violence because I believe you have to both pray and protest injustice. But do it through the ways of nonviolence because suicide bombing is so cruel and so violent and you know, you must use means that are consistent to the end. If you wanted just Middle East, justice in Palestine, in the Lebanon you must use the means that will bring about that, so suicide bombing, hunger strikes, I mean If we are really going to create a culture of nonviolence, of respect for human life, because God lives in everybody and if we’re going to create that respect for it, start with yourselves, so we don’t go on hunger strikes to the death because that in itself is violent.
We use alternative means to bring about the kind of society that we really want to see, but for the political leaders I have been to Iraq in 1998 and I visited the Ameriyah Shelter where over 500 women and children were incinerated in the first Gulf War by two American bombs dropped into that centre and then I went to visit in the hospitals children dying of malnutrition and diseases. For half a million Iraqi children under the age of five died because of UN sanctions put on by America and Britain while the world stood by and ignored it. The suffering of the Iraqi people both under Saddam Hussein who was a cruel dictator but also under invasion and occupation by the West and their children made to suffer because the West /- – -/ punished collective punishment of the Iraqi people women and children. But we’re seeing collective punishment by the Israeli government now against the Lebanese people, I mean that is scandalous, it is criminal, it is illegal, it is immoral and the world should be up saying out loud to both America who’s using these policies and the UK, and to Israel, these policies are not acceptable in a civilised community.
Dropping cluster bombs on villages when a ceasefire was about to be declaimed by the Israeli Government is criminal. These are acts against humanity and unless we say that clearly, then we’re going to find ourselves on an escalation of nuclear bombs, pre-emptive wars, abusive human rights and civil liberties, complete ignoring of the Union Nations and International Laws which are the only protection the human family has. If we don’t protect our International Laws and our human rights and if we don’t protect civilian populations and allow them to be destroyed, like Fallujah. The world stood by when the American Military went in and massacred civilians at Fallujah. I mean how, how cruel is that? So I think we’ve got to be very clear and outspoken against our governments and their political leaders when their policies are inhumane and that means governments in the West and our own governments as well as governments in the Eastern countries because after all, we have got to speak out for humanity and for the children or if we don’t there’s going to be no hope.
How have you dealt with those who criticise you and say that well, well you can say all this, and you can say all that, but at the end of the day we must look after ourselves, because that’s really kind of mentality in the Western world today we are very selfish often, we are building walls around this little Europe of ours and saying everybody else must stay out.
Mairead Corrigan: I think really in looking after others we are actually looking after ourselves because one of the greatest problems we’re faced with today is a global warming and an environmental catastrophe and I mean we’ve only got one world, one earth and we are all affected now by the tremendous pace at which the globe and the earth is warming up. We need this take seriously our green politics where we start protecting the earth because when something happens in one part of the world, it does affect other parts of the world so that is where we need to work together as the human family through the United Nations which definitely needs change, but it’s the best we’ve got, through the International forums that we’ve got like the European Parliament and the other forums that we’ve got. We need to work together because we’re interconnected and we’re interdependent and I think that’s where the hope is because nowadays you know, technology is advancing so fast and we can communicate with each other down the internet, down the website and the word is interconnected. People are on the move. People are intermarrying.
So there’s nobody now can say well I’m just going to look after myself and my own immediate family because we have a duty, we have a moral responsibility to take care of each other and to take care of the environment and to take care of our world and to take care of the poor. I mean poverty in the world today is increasing it’s not decreasing, and worlds were spending billions and billions and billions on nuclear weapons and renewing nuclear weapons and conventional weapons where children are starving, it’s crazy politics. Not only it’s immoral, unjust, criminal, it’s just crazy politics – the money to be abused and used in this way. So I think money out of militarism money into healthcare and to education, to feeding the hungry, we can do it. We can change things, there is hope. Because we created it, we can change it.
When I look at the last 20 or 30 years, there’s a tremendous amount of people who have received the Peace Prize every year, in your opinion who are the people in that long row of people and also back that have inspired you?
Mairead Corrigan: I think if you look at all of the different Laureates in their own ways, each one has a tremendous story but then you know, when you meet people and you listen to their stories, everyone has a great story. You could write a book on everyone’s story you know, but I think Adolfo Pérez Esquivel in Argentina. I went to visit him while I first won the Nobel Prize and he had actually written a book about the abuse of the military in Argentina and was imprisoned and tortured but still came out for non-violence and I’ve always been inspired by his life and also Aung San Suu Kyi. Who could not be inspired by the life of that woman who single-handedly has almost taken on the military dictatorship in Burma and she has come out for human rights and democracy and she now is in her 10th year of house arrest in Burma and that’s a very solitary life but she has stayed there and given up so much in order to call for rights for the Burmese people and I just would love to see her free, I’d love to see the political prisoners in Burma free, I’d love to see the Burmese military move into dialogue with the National League for Democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi and begin to solve the problem of Burma in a peaceful way because the people are suffering so so much. But Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the greatest heroes of our day.
What would for you, be the signs of a lasting solution to the Northern Ireland problem? How far have you got and what is still left to be done?
Mairead Corrigan: For me in Northern Ireland, we only have 1,5 million people here, but it is a very deep ethnic political conflict and the communities live apart here. Different identities, different religions, different traditions, now tragically in 30 years of violence, the community has become very polarised so what I would love to see in the future in Northern Ireland, we’ve come a long way, we have the Good Friday agreement but our politicians have not yet sat down round the negotiating table and begun to work the politics in Northern Ireland so I look forward to the politicians from all parties sitting down and Stormont up and running. But more than that I look forward to trust growing in Northern Ireland between the peoples, where we begin to put our humanity above our diverse traditions and religions and flags and we recognise that as human beings we are put in this little bit of earth to make the best of life for each other and to work together and to build a non-killing, non-violent society.
Now that may sound a bit of a dream, non-killing, non-violent society, but you know the vast majority of people don’t kill each other. People who actually do join armies, it takes a long time for them to be taught to kill the enemy and even then, many of them don’t do it, it’s not in our human nature to kill each other. So I think teaching non-violence, teaching conflict resolution, teaching absolute respect for each other and the fact that god loves every person and if we can create a culture of non violence in Northern Ireland then no matter what political problems we are faced with, we’ll be able to deal with them without killing each other and that’s what I look forward to in Northern Ireland.
Back to 1976 and what happened to your sister and the tragic death of her a few years later, I mean she couldn’t go on any more after the death of her children. How did you come to terms with that? How did you forgive those who were responsible for her death indirectly?
Mairead Corrigan: When my sister Anne’s three children were buried, I took roses off their grave and went to see Mrs Lennon who was the mother of the young IRA Soldier, Danny Lennon, because I felt that she had lost a son, I didn’t agree with her politics, but I felt that as a family they had lost their young son in the troubles and I also prayed for the young British soldier who’d shot Danny Lennon because in a way we were all caught up in this violence and we were all part of the trouble and part of the conflict and you know it was hard to say who you actually blamed in this situation because maybe we were all responsible, maybe we’d all sat back for too long and allowed the violence to go on and you know we had been very ambivalent about violence, you know making excuses for one lot or the other.
And I also then, my sister Anne, whenever she came out she was very ill, she’d been bruising and had to learn to walk again, she went to visit Mrs Lennon herself, after she had learnt to walk and I asked her why she went to visit Mrs Lennon and she said that she was a mother who’d lost a son and she wanted to tell her that she had been thinking of her so you know, sometimes in conflict situations it can be very easy that we kind of pour our anguish on our anger onto others to punish them and I really think we need to step back and allow ourselves to be healed and maybe look at how we can be more compassionate, more loving and change the situation to make it easier for people to be more peaceful. So healing is important and I think that we needed here, a spiritual movement and a political movement because it will be hearts of compassion and hearts of love and people who refuse to judge and condemn, people who are understanding how difficult the journey is, no matter where you live, who will really be able to show us maybe a different path. So we need that kind of forgiveness in the world today.
It’s easy to demonise somebody and say get the terrorists, but you know in a sense when we go back to our own inner sense of wisdom and looking at what brings about causes terrorism, realising we have to uphold civil liberties, human rights, we have to have justice and deal with things in a different more compassionate way. And I think I owe that kind of feeling to my father and my father used to say to us when we were children you know, he used to kneel us down to say our prayers every night and he always said you know never let the sun go down on your anger, just forgive. So I never found myself looking for someone to blame rather than looking for how we could solve our anger away without using violence.
Thank you so much.
Mairead Corrigan: Thank you.
Interview with Mairead Corrigan Maguire on 1 September 2006, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Interviewer is freelance journalist Marika Griehsel.
Mairead Corrigan Maguire talks about how she started to work in the peace movement; being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (6:23); the role of women in peace-making (8:34); what Nobel Peace Prize Laureates can do for peace (12:18); the importance of non-violence and ‘green politics’ (17:01); and her thoughts on a lasting solution to the Northern Ireland problems (28:04).
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