Last time round, peace seemed a hopeless cause

YESTERDAY'S ceremony did not mark the first time that the Nobel peace prize has been awarded to those who have tried to end the violence in Ulster.

Twenty-one years ago, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, co-founders of Peace People, received the Nobel peace prize in recognition of their valiant attempts to organise public rallies that could help bring an end to the nightmare.

But there is a world of difference between 1977 and 1998. Williams and Corrigan were awarded the prize for their courage in fighting what seemed to be an unwinnable battle. Like the elected but banned Burmese leader, Aung San Suu Kyi - who was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1991 - the prize was awarded for valour, not for victory.

Peace People was born of tragedy: Mairead Corrigan lost a niece and two nephews, mown down by a car after an IRA driver was shot; Betty Williams, whose father was a Protestant and father a Catholic, witnessed the accident. The two women joined forces to work against the culture of violence. The peace rallies attracted thousands, even then. Williams declared: "Let all women encourage men to have the courage not to turn up for war." The Nobel committee's citation argued: "Their initiative paved the way for the strong resistance against violence and misuse of power, which was present in broad circles of people." But, despite some popular support, Corrigan and Williams were still voices in a political wilderness. After almost a decade of violence, the distrust and hatred were stronger than the yearning for an end to violence. Powerful forces on both sides were unhappy at the very existence of the Peace People. The IRA threatened them; Ian Paisley scorned them. Now, the IRA has itself called off the terrorist dogs, and Paisley is isolated as never before. John Hume, by contrast - uniquely steadfast in his commitment to tolerance in the past three decades - was isolated when the Peace People were active. Now the peacemakers stand centre stage, while the intolerant have been pushed to one side.

Corrigan and Williams later fell out with each other - in 1986, ten years after the founding of the Peace People, a television documentary tried to bring them together again. They refused: by that stage, the rift between the two women was too serious. None the less, the 1977 prize can be seen as a kind of warm-up for yesterday's award ceremony. Some of the worst atrocities took place in the years after the Peace People's first flurry of half-success. At the time, their attempts to change things seemed hopeless. In the meantime, however, the landscape has changed irrevocably.

Doomed gestures are not always as doomed as they seem, in the darkest moments. If things look bad in Ulster today - one only needs to look back twenty years, to get the gloom into perspective.