Last time round, peace seemed a hopeless cause
Friday 11 December 1998
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.
- 1 Michael Brown shooting: Amnesty International sends team within US for first time as National Guard deployed
- 2 James Foley 'beheaded': Isis video shows militant with British accent 'execute US journalist' – and warns Obama of more to come
- 3 Reading Festival 2014: Tesco branch replaces salad and potatoes for Jagermesiter and vodka
- 4 Here’s the damning letter Robin Williams wrote to his Mrs Doubtfire co-star's principal after they expelled her
- 5 Ferguson protests: 90-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein ‘arrested’ by police during St Louis demonstrations
Michael Brown shooting: Amnesty International sends team within US for first time as National Guard deployed
Michael Brown shooting: Ferguson police shoot and kill second young black man
James Foley 'beheaded': Isis video shows militant with British accent 'execute US journalist' – and warns Obama of more to come
Iraq crisis: Islamic State's message to America - 'We will drown you all in blood'
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness
Isis threat: Cameron wants an alliance with Iran
Scottish independence: English people overwhelmingly want Scotland to stay in the UK
Crisis? What crisis? A visiting US doctor gives the NHS a rave review
Russell Brand calls for Israel boycott: Comedian urges big businesses that 'facilitate the oppression of people in Gaza' to pull funding
Ukip MEP calls for reintroduction of death penalty on fiftieth anniversary of last deaths
Michael Brown shooting: Chaos erupts on the streets of Ferguson after autopsy shows teenager was shot six times – twice in the head
£50000 - £60000 Per Annum + excellent company benefits: Clearwater People Solu...
£65000 - £70000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based i...
£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy En...
£475 - £550 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Technical Accountant-Insuran...