Betty Williams

Interview with Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire – Sept. 15, 1976

Betty Williams
September 15, 1976— London, England
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Williams and Corrigan Maguire speak to Elaine Grand of "Good Afternoon" about their movement and how they want to achieve lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

GRAND: …and they have formed the Women's Peace Movement in Northern Ireland, which is now I think called the Peace People, as simple as that, isn't it – the Peace People. And you were the children's aunt [said to Maguire], the first person to know about their deaths was you, wasn't it, Betty?

WILLIAMS: Yes, that's right. I'd seen that thing all happening. I was the first one to actually see – Mairead was on holiday, on her way home from Achill Island – so I was really the first person to know what had happened.

GRAND: By…what it on your street?

WILLIAMS: No, around the corner, about 200 yards from where I live that it happened. But it could have been me. It could have been the girl next door to me. It could have been…it just happened that it was Anne Maguire. It could have been anyone that it happened to that day.

GRAND: Now, was it your immediate response to say something must be done? I mean, you'd been living with horror and tragedy for many years. Why particularly this tragedy? Why did that stimulate you into action?

WILLIAMS: God, it was the most awful thing anybody could have ever seen in their life, and it just burst a dam inside. You just had to say, let's do something about it. Somebody's got to do something about this, it's so tragic.

GRAND: And what did you do? What was your first action?

WILLIAMS: Well, my sister and myself and a friend were sitting in my living room. We decided that we'd…well, it was done very…I was very angry. I was very angry. And I had a little [unintelligible] pad that I write to my husband on, and I just…. I didn't go to my immediate area, I went right into the heart of Andersonstown. And the first door I knocked at, I really knocked at. I was angry, and when the woman came out, I said to her, "Do you want peace? Sign that." It wasn't done, like, "Would you like to sign something for peace?" It was done in total anger because I know the women of Andersonstown. I was born there. I was brought up there. I was reared in an Andersonstown ghetto, and I love them. They're great people. And I knew the women of Andersonstown couldn't have approved of what was going on. I knew that. And they've shown that, that they don't approve of what's going on, that senseless slaughter of innocents, that's really…one death's not worth it.

GRAND: Now, Mairead, you didn't actually know Betty, did you?

MAGUIRE: No, I never met Betty until the day that the babies were buried, was the first time that I'd actually said hello to Betty. I did phone her and invite her along to join the family up at the front of the church. And then I came together with Betty really in the first day of the first march. That was Saturday, we had our first protest.

GRAND: Now, Betty talks about anger. What was your response? You came back from holiday and a great part of your family has been destroyed.

MAGUIRE: Well, my first response was [unintelligible]. The babies died on a Tuesday, two of them, and on Wednesday I went to the morgue with my brother-in-law, Jackie Maguire, and we looked at the two children lying in the morgue. We looked at the third baby, John, his brain dead and him waiting to die. And we looked at his wife, lying, not expected to live. And we went from there, up to see the priest, and Jackie said to the priest, "[unintelligible] to arrange a triple funeral for my babies." And then Jackie Maguire said, "And I want to speak to the press. I want to condemn the I.R.A. I want to condemn all men of violence and what's going on in our society." He was the first man to condemn what was happening, and that left me free. I'd always wanted to condemn what was going on. But whenever Jackie first spoke to the press, I went down to the television that afternoon, which was Wednesday. And I went out over the media. And I said I was speaking on behalf of a majority of our people, because we were being held in a grip of fear, fear in our communities of the gunmen, and fear perhaps of the other side, too, as we were taught to look at "that side" and "this side," which is ridiculous, that they, too, had guns and maybe we should allow those who were our protectors to hold onto theirs. But it was, for me, an opportunity to say that we don't want violence, we're no longer going to be held ransom by the man holding the guns. And this begun to me to break down the wall of fear that all our communities living in.

GRAND: Before we go on now, to your organizations and your first successes, I think a lot of people would want to ask what I want to ask — that was five weeks ago. Has your sister recovered?

MAGUIRE: Thanks be to God, it's a real miracle. At the moment, we're hoping she'll be out in the next couple of weeks.

GRAND: She's still in hospital?

MAGUIRE: She's still in hospital, but it's a miracle she's alive and I thank all the people throughout the world who are praying for Anne's recovery. She's just a pin in one knee and two fractures in the other, but thanks be to God she's going to be 100%. But Jackie Maguire first said, "I hope the children haven't died in vain. It would be a seven-day wonder." But we're going to ensure that no more children in Northern Ireland are going to die. And it doesn't matter if they're going into Roselawn, the Protestant, or Midtown, the Catholic – we've had enough. There's going to be no more deaths in Northern Ireland.

GRAND: Then how did you get signatures? Did you have to have special phones installed? What were the details?

WILLIAMS: No, I find when I went round…I was just…I'm sitting here now, Elaine, and I'm just speaking for…we've got a hundred people on the streets of Northern Ireland who have come out. I'm only their mouthpiece. That's all I am.

GRAND: A hundred thousand in five weeks?

WILLIAMS: In five weeks.

GRAND: How did it start?

WILLIAMS: Well, the first rally was on the Saturday after the children's death, and I…through the media again, I went on the media and I said, "If anyone would care to come to this rally on Saturday," including the Protestant people of Northern Ireland, Belfast. And on the first rally we had 10,000, and the women were running over and saying to me, "I'm from Sandy Row," which is staunchly loyalist, "I'm from Shankill Road, which is staunchly loyalist." And then we had a banner of Andersonstown women, and then the Twinbrook women came down. And every one of those women – I'm just saying what those normal, beautiful women want in Northern Ireland. We have so many gorgeous people there. All you've heard about are the rotten, the bad things and the awful things that have happened. But we have lovely people in Northern Ireland, Elaine, really lovely.

MAGUIRE: See unfortunately, in Northern Ireland we have two distinct communities. We have the Catholic community and we have the Protestant community. And for far too long it has suited a lot of people in positions to keep the two communities apart. There's not only a physical barrier up between the Catholic and the Protestant districts, but what's even more important, there's an invisible barrier of fear between those two communities. And as I said, it has suited certain people to let them remain there. But what has happened now is that the ordinary, decent people of Northern Ireland are coming out now and there are thousands to say that the gunman and a few people who are saying they are speaking on behalf of the loyalists or they're speaking on behalf of the Catholics or Protestants – they're not speaking on our behalf. They've never spoken on our behalf, because they've never asked us what we want. But now the ordinary people are coming out to say that they don't want the violence. And also what is happening out of our peace movement is that we're getting these fantastic little groups growing up in Catholic and Protestant areas, and already we have the Catholics and the Protestants crossing over. And the ordinary people of Northern Ireland, for the first time in history almost, are going to have an opportunity to say what they want in their society. And they themselves will take down the barrier of fear and the physical barriers in the community. They'll do it themselves. As they proved yesterday on the Shankill, ordinary women and men of Northern Ireland –

GRAND: I'm glad you brought that up, because when you said little groups doing something, the immediate reaction is to say, "What? Words cannot fight the gunmen." But yesterday was the first direct action that the Peace People took. They stopped busses from being burned.

WILLIAMS: This had happened on the Falls Road the week before, where the women of the Falls had got out and stopped it. And we've had a few intimidations stopped — do you know what I mean by intimidations, Elaine?

GRAND: You must explain this.

WILLIAMS: I.E., a Catholic family living in a Protestant area – someone would go to their door and say, "You have five minutes to get out. You've got to get out of here." I.E., the other way around. And we had two of those stopped by the Catholic women. We had bus burnings stopped by the Catholic women in Twinbrook and on the Falls Road. And yesterday, the Protestant women got out and done exactly the same thing. They stopped this happening. So the two communities will now start helping each other. I.E., if something happens on the Shankill Road, the Andersonstown women will go over and help the Shankill Road women. And vice versa. This is going to happen.

MAGUIRE: You see, we not only want to find peace in Northern Ireland, it's far more important in that we want to change Northern Ireland society. In the past, we've just prayed for peace and hoped it would follow and it hadn't. We've walked for peace and gone home. We've condemned violence. We've sat back and we've said, "Isn't that terrible?" but we've done nothing about it. And to condemn violence and do nothing about it is to be violent. Now we are saying, people who march, who come out to our rallies, we are saying to them they must dedicate themselves toward working for peace in their community. So they must go home and they must work out their dedication. This is – you've got our little decoration piece….

GRAND: Can I ask you – when you say "dedicate," in detail that means what? Living 24 hours of every day, positively for peace may take a lot of courage at times.

MAGUIRE: Well, that's we want to change. All along in our society, we have glorified the gunman. Do you know we sing songs about men with guns who take life and destroy society? We sing songs about them in Northern Ireland. People all over the world sing songs about that. Maybe it's woman's fault. She expects her man to be somebody with a gun and big muscles and able to knock the other guy down. To us, we want to change our way of thinking. The hero in our society is going to be the guy who cares about the one next him, who's involved in his society, who's working together to build his society up. We're going to ask…. There's going to be thousands of silent heroes in Northern Ireland, and they are the people who are going to stand up against the gunman and say, "You're not acting for me." But for the first time also in Irish history, we're saying to the gunman, "There is an alternative." You see, for a long time many young men in our country – on both sides of the divide – have taken the gun because there's been no other alternative. They've taken a gun because they felt it might be the way someone would listen to them. We've had…. I've lived in a community where I've felt total frustration about violence perpetrated by men in uniform. I've felt great frustration at this. But because I'm a pacifist, I've never taken a gun. But many young men did take a gun. But we're saying to those young men now – who belong to our society – we're not saying, "Go out and get lost," we're saying, "You're part of our society. Put up your gun. Let's work toward peace. When we send man to the moon, why can't we get around a table and discuss. Tell us what you're trying to say, but not through the barrel of a gun."

GRAND: It's strange, you mentioned the songs that glorify violence and the gunman. You have your own song, which is called very simply "Peace." Now how did that come about? Who wrote that for you, or was it an old song that you adapted?

WILLIAMS: It wasn't really written for us. This was a song by Danny Feeney and a man called O'Hagan, who live in Derry. And two years ago Danny happened to be in a spot where cross-fire, British Army and I.R.A. cross-fire was going on, and in the distance he saw a woman drop – he thought a woman – and when he went to cross and turned her over, it was his 14-year-old sister and she was dead. So that song is about two years old, but it so totally…it is our movement. I mean, every word in that song is…We walk peace, talk peace, think peace. We will live together, we will build together, we will act together. And all we have to do is think peace and talk peace. For so long in Belfast, and Northern Ireland generally, the violent attitude. I mean, a total air of despondency, Elaine, and that's the only way I can explain it to you. I would have been in a shop – maybe a butcher's, for instance, buying a pound of meat for the dinner that night – and the lady beside me would have said to me, "Wasn't that awful what happened last night?" And then you just simply shrugged your shoulders. Fear. Terror. What could you do? There was nothing you could do. But the people of Northern Ireland, as an individual, every one of them is strong within themselves. They can do something, from grassroots up – not from politician down. From grassroots up. We have a 100,000 people who have come out on the streets of Northern Ireland to say they want peace, to say they're going to act out peace.

MAGUIRE: But it's not going to be a kind of peace that is going to fade away in 25 years. Old Irish tradition history – always the rebels come back again. This peace is going to be a good, constructive, lasting peace and we're going to unite the two communities in Northern Ireland. We're going to have Protestant and Catholic working together, everybody getting in and trying to sort of…if we sort of say to all the community, now every man within our community. Perhaps this is what has happened out of our peace campaign – we've given back the individual his own self-importance, we've told the ordinary man and woman in the street that he can do something. And here you have these women coming out, knowing they are important in Northern Ireland – be they one year old or 99, they have something to contribute to Northern Ireland. The individual is going to be the success of our movement.

GRAND: You see the thing that fascinate me – I know you've got massive community support, you've got world-wide support. You talk about individuals, you talk about grassroots. How strong is their support to you?

WILLIAMS: Well, I have a wonderful family, truly wonderful in every way, and since I started this everyone is solid 100% behind it. I'm very lucky in that respect. Also, my neighborhood where I live – really good solid people. They're too worried about their mortgage and how to get a day in [unintelligible] shoot and bomb and kill anybody.

MAGUIRE: Yes, we've been threatened, but honestly, I can honestly say I'm not afraid of the gunman. You know, I'm afraid of the gun, yes, but I'm not afraid of the gunman, because I want to know why he has that gun in his hand – for what purpose is he using that gun? And I want him to put that gun up and tell me what he's trying to tell me in another way. You see, these people with guns – they're part of our society. They think they're right in taking the gun because for centuries, nobody has listened to what they've had to say. Well I hit a point [unintelligible] when we're saying to the people, "Try to listen to one another," and the Northern Irish people — the best people in the world. I've been around it and I know it, and you just can't beat them, no matter where they come from. And I think they're capable of getting together to listen to one another, to build a new society together.

GRAND: Can I ask you if you've become almost hardened, because yesterday when we were talking in London for just a couple of hours, you were saying, "Isn't it marvelous not to hear the ambulances going all the time!" We, outside, don't really understand the lives you have been leading all these years, do we?

WILLIAMS: [unintelligible] the bomb scare. We've just become accustomed to living that way.

GRAND: Did it harden people?

WILLIAMS: Of course it did —

GRAND: Your cousin was killed, wasn't he?

WILLIAMS: Yes, I had a young cousin shot dead at his own front door by a Protestant paramilitary organization. I've also had a friend, Joe Hughes, blown up by an I.R.A. organization. So I've seen violence in, sort of, all quarters. But what we're trying to say…. It used to be if wee Paddy done it, when he was a Catholic – it's a tribal loyalty, the ghetto commandments. And if wee Paddy done it when he was a Catholic – that wasn't too bad. But if wee Paddy done on the Shankill – well that was shocking. And vice versa, if wee Paddy on the Shankill —

GRAND: But are you sure you will be able to break down these barriers and keep them down — that it will remain a nonpolitical, nonsectarian movement? How are you going to ensure that, because it can't be successful if it goes to one side of the barrier again.

MAGUIRE: We've said we're nonpolitical, because a month ago I knew nothing about politics. I was too involved with handicapped children and teenagers in Catholic area to get…. Because politics were a dirty business in Northern Ireland. But I mean if politics is the way you care about people's lives, we care about the people in Northern Ireland. We believe in the people of Northern Ireland. We believe in their ability, as they've shown in the last couple of weeks, for the Catholics to go to the Protestants and the Protestants to go to the Catholics. The Protestant and Catholic people of Northern Ireland will unite. They themselves will take down the physical barriers and the mental barriers, and they themselves will come together in their little street groups to work together, to discuss their future, to build their future. And we are saying that it's…the peace movement is not Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams. The peace movement is the ordinary man and woman in the street of Northern Ireland. Now you've got back…losing his frustrations because he knows he's important to the community and that he can help in the community. But for long, we sat back feeling frustrated because we had a few people talking on our behalf and we hadn't the guts to get up and say, "You're not talking for us." We're going to show to the world that the people of Northern Ireland can be para-peace people. We're going to be guerrilla people. We're going to show the whole world just how good we can be.

GRAND: When you say "we," you no longer mean just the women for peace, do you?

WILLIAMS: Well, we're Peace People now. We have men on the streets as well. And you mentioned the Nobel Prize. My greatest joy would be to take that, and hand it to wee Mikey on the Shankill for one of our rallies, and take it across to next week and give it to wee Mary on the Falls. Because Northern Ireland for so long has been such a violent…horrible, violent…evolving violence the whole time. And in the middle of all this, somebody says, "Well, somebody in Northern Ireland's done something constructive toward peace. Let's nominate them for the Nobel Peace Prize." You realize what a nomination that is – what a wonderful honor that would be for the ordinary, grassroots people of Northern Ireland. It would really be something out of this world. Not Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams – we're only the mouthpiece – but to go and give that to the ordinary woman of Shankill or the Falls or wherever she may come from, to carry that Nobel Peace Prize for the people of Northern Ireland —

GRAND: The Peace People everywhere. I have to say —

MAGUIRE: The people who for so long, for seven years have been living with violence, they have wanted it —

GRAND: I have to say thank you now. I'm afraid our time is up.

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