Euphoria in Ireland that turned to acrimony

David McKittrick on the hopes that were raised by two Nobel prizewinner s
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The phenomenon of the women's peace movement which swept Northern Ireland in the 1970s provides an unpromising precedent for the campaigners now being organised in Corsica.

The Belfast-based Peace People, as they were known, went through a euphoric phase in which they were able to assemble tens of thousands at huge outdoor rallies. Within a short period, however, the organisation fell apart amidst public and internal acrimony.

The movement survives to this day, but is now a small-scale organisation which, although it supports cross-community initiatives at local level, attracts little national interest.

The organisation emerged from a wave of anger and grief generated by the deaths of three children in a car chase in west Belfast in August 1976. An IRA member, Danny Lennon, who was a close personal friend of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, was driving a getaway car when he was shot by a soldier. The vehicle went out of control, careering on to a pavement and killing three young sisters.

In the aftermath of the incident two local women, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, the children's aunt, called on people to reject terrorism. The movement quickly snowballed, attracting large numbers of people and much international publicity. The two women won the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize and became public figures. But the movement came under criticism from both paramilitary groups and conventional politicians.

As the months passed, the initial hope and fervour of the Peace People ebbed, while the generalised desire for peace became more complicated as it adopted its own positions on contentious issues.

There followed a period of internal arguments and personality clashes, and there was damaging criticism about the uses to which the Nobel Prize money was put. Betty Williams moved to the United States while Mairead Corrigan continues with her peace work in Belfast.

Years later, when a television company made a programme to mark the anniversary of the movement's foundation, the two women preferred not to appear on screen together.

The Peace People are remembered in Belfast as a transient phenomenon which began with promise but did not deliver peace.