OBITUARY: Peace activist Betty Williams dies, aged 76
Life & Style

OBITUARY: Peace activist Betty Williams dies, aged 76

NOBEL laureate and peace activist Betty Williams recently passed away in Belfast aged 76.

Ms Williams, who formed the Community of Peace People, usually called the Peace Movement, in 1976 along with Mairead Corrigan Maguire and Ciaran McKeown, died on St Patricks’ Day.

In a statement on the Peace Movement website, Ms Williams was described as one of the "great founder members" of the organisation.

Born in Belfast, she was the daughter of a Protestant father and Catholic mother — rare for that time in Northern Ireland. After attending St Dominic's Grammar School for Girls she took up a job of office receptionist.

But her life changed one afternoon when she witnessed a horrific incident in west Belfast.

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On August 10, 1976. Danny Lennon, a Provisional IRA member and close friend of Gerry Adams, was driving a car at speed along Finaghy Road North, in west Belfast.

He was racing through the streets of Andersonstown trying to throw off a British army patrol that had been pursuing him. The car tore round a slight bend and approached St John the Baptist school.

As Lennon accelerated up an incline on the road, the army patrol open fire. Lennon was killed, and his car swerved into the railings of the school.

Anne Maguire, a young Andersonstown housewife, was walking past the school with her children: Joanne (8), Mark (6), John (2); she was wheeling Andrew, six weeks old, in a pram. Joanne and Andrew were killed instantly. John died later in hospital.

It was a horrific, seismic event for Northern Ireland, which had already endured seven years of violent civil strife.

The killing of the three children sent a wave of revulsion throughout the country.

Williams was shocked into action. Then 33, she collected 6,000 signatures on a petition calling for peace.

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The subsequent funerals of the children turned into a huge, peaceful protest. It was here that Betty Williams struck up a friendship with Mairead Corrigan, the children’s aunt.

Out of this meeting emerged the Peace Movement. Rallies were held throughout Northern Ireland, and support came from both sides of the religious-political divide.

For a brief period it looked as if this surge in the desire for peace might swamp sectarian violence.

But bitter divisions soon surfaced, and the movement began to founder.

In the long term, the Peace People had little effect on the course of the Troubles, even though both Williams and Corrigan received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976.

The general realisation emerged that to make peace in the North you needed to include both politicians and paramilitaries.

However the Peace Movement did create a legacy of striving for peace even in the most unpromising circumstances.

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And it was a stepping stone for Williams towards a certain celebrity. She fell out with her former friend Mairead Corrigan, who had given her share of the Nobel prize money to the Peace Movement.

Williams kept hers and started along the career path of international peace professional. She largely shunned her former co-activists in the movement.

Williams spent increasingly long periods in the US, where she was received much more uncritically than back home in Ireland.

Betty Williams was a forceful personality at the best of times; her actions during the Troubles, which were brave morally justified and arose from the best of motives, required someone who was eloquent and vigorous. But fame and celebrity made here ever more forthright, and at times this descended into the familiar “Do you know who I am?” syndrome.

The Times reported that in 1980 she was fined £30 (about £130 today) for swearing while attempting to force her way on to an aircraft at Heathrow.

She also divorced her Belfast husband and married Jim Perkins, a well-established businessman from Florida.

Her career as international peace activist and humanitarian continued, and in the fullness of time the Belfast woman began rubbing shoulders with the great peace luminaries of the world — Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama.

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An intelligent, articulate woman, she held down several visiting academic posts.

In 2004 she returned to live in Ireland.

Williams and Corrigan had a reconciliation in recent years, and in a statement on the Peace People website, Corrigan described her as "a woman of great courage with a passion for peace”.

“I felt privileged to know her as a great peace activist and friend," the statement says.

Betty Williams' last public appearance was in January of this year when she signed a book of condolence for Seamus Mallon along with Sharon Stone.

She is survived by her daughter, Debbie, and son, Paul.