What was the Peace People movement in Northern Ireland?
The Peace People began in 1976 as a grassroots movement to protest the ongoing violence in Northern Ireland…
On a bright and sunny summer day in Belfast in 1976, a large crowd of women and children are making their way through the suburb of Andersonstown. People have been basking in a heatwave for the last few months, but the women in this 10,000-strong gathering are not out to make the most of the sun, and, despite their number, they move in near silence. The mood is sombre, only occasionally punctuated by an outburst of singing from the group of nuns that join the throng.
Most striking – in a religiously divided Northern Ireland – is the presence of both Protestants and Catholics; marching side-by-side and carrying banners calling for peace. The crowd moves down Finaghy Road North, a location that now holds a deep and tragic significance, on their way to Milltown Cemetery. There, they will mourn three newly buried children: the latest victims of sectarian violence. The 1970s were a dangerous time in Northern Ireland, when the tensions that had divided the people for decades spilled over into a bloody period of unrest called the Troubles. Protestants and Catholics lived side-by-side in disharmony. Politically and economically, Northern Ireland was dominated by Protestant loyalists who wished to remain part of the UK. The state police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was overwhelmingly Protestant too. But Catholic nationalists wanted to end British rule and see Ireland unified. Protests, rioting and attacks, including bombings, were common on both sides.
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In August 1969, after days of fighting across a number of towns and cities, the British government took the decision to send in troops to restore law and order. Instead, this emboldened the Irish Republican Army (IRA), especially a splinter faction called the Provisional IRA (or Provos), who were willing to use violence in their guerrilla campaign to get rid of the British. Over the years, innocent people were constantly caught in the crossfire, such as the victims on Finaghy Road North in 1976.
The tragedy that sparked the Peace People movement
On the afternoon of 10 August 1976, British troops engaged in a high-speed chase with a young member of the IRA, Danny Lennon. He had been seen driving through Andersonstown, with a passenger, and supposedly pointed a gun in the direction of the soldiers, who set off in pursuit in their Land Rover. At the same time, a young mother named Anne Maguire and her four children, aged between six weeks and eight years old, were walking down the same road. The British soldiers opened fire and shot Lennon dead, causing the car to swerve and mount the pavement – right into the path of the Maguire family.
The infant Andrew in his pram and eight-year-old Joanne, who was riding her bicycle, were killed instantly, while two-year-old John died the following day. Only seven-year-old Mark was unhurt as he had been further along the pavement. Anne was severely injured and remained unconscious for several days, awakening to hear of the unbearable loss of three of her children. She would take her own life a few years later.
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The British opened fire and shot Lennon dead, causing the car to swerve – right into the path of the Maguire family
The tragedy was a stark demonstration of how the conflict in Northern Ireland was needlessly killing innocent civilians, with no sign of stopping. While there was fury in the community with some blaming the soldiers and others the republicans, most were too heartbroken to be angry at any particular side. They were just tired of the bloodshed.
The following day, dozens of women from local republican neighbourhoods marched in protest against IRA violence, symbolically pushing prams as they went. Churches were flooded with those offering prayers for the Maguire family, spontaneous marches took place across Northern Ireland, and the site of the crash on Finaghy Road North became a flower-adorned shrine.
Who was behind the formation of Peace People?
Anne Maguire’s sister, Máiread Corrigan, having had to formally identify the children, went on television and called for an end to the violence. Her appeal spoke to all in the grieving community. Among them was Betty Williams, who had been one of the first on the scene of the tragedy and who began going door-to-door with a petition for peace in Northern Ireland. Within two days, she had gathered 6,000 signatures.
The Maguire children’s funeral took place on 13 August, and the next day Corrigan and Williams helped organise a march of 10,000 people – Catholics, Protestants, republicans and loyalists alike, putting differences aside – through Andersonstown to the site of the tragedy and the cemetery where the children were now buried.
By then, the two women had also met Ciaran McKeown, a Belfast-based journalist and a nonviolent activist, and the trio emerged as leaders of a new grassroots peace movement. An even larger rally followed on 21 August, where around 20,000 supporters gathered at Ormeau Park and McKeown read out a declaration setting out the aims of the movement, which had been named Peace People.
“We have a simple message to the world from this movement for peace. We want to live and love and build a just and peaceful society. We want for our children, as we want for ourselves, our lives at home, at work, and at play to be lives of joy and peace,” it began. “We reject the use of the bomb and the bullet and all the techniques of violence. We dedicate ourselves to working with our neighbours, near and far, day in and day out, to building that peaceful society in which the tragedies we have known are a bad memory and a continuing warning.” In the following months, over 100,000 put their names to the declaration and mass Peace People rallies were held across Northern Ireland and Britain. Unlike other calls for peace, this was a large-scale movement where Protestants and Catholics came together. At one march on Belfast’s Shankill Road – a Protestant heartland – Catholics were welcomed over the ‘peace lines’, the walls separating neighbourhoods.
But peace was never going to be an easy aim. Members of the movement were regularly subjected to stone-throwing at rallies, death threats and even petrol bombings. Despite a commitment to nonviolence and inclusivity, some opponents accused Peace People of being pro-British, while others disliked the idea of the two religious groups mixing at all. The IRA saw it as a threat to their aims of a united Ireland. Undeterred, Peace People continued to organise rallies, including in November 1976 when more than 10,000 people marched to London’s Trafalgar Square, where American folk singer Joan Baez sang We Shall Overcome.
What was the impact of the Peace People movement?
In the first six months after Peace People was established, Northern Ireland saw a 70 per cent drop in the rate of violence, calculated by the number of fatalities, and it would never return to the levels experienced at the height of the Troubles. For their tireless efforts, both Williams and Corrigan were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (the latter, at 32, became the youngest recipient of the laureate until Malala Yousafzai in 2014). Not long afterwards, McKeown became the first person from Northern Ireland to make a speech at the General Assembly of the United Nations.
It would be another two decades until peace was finally achieved in Northern Ireland with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Today, Peace People still works at maintaining peace in Northern Ireland, as well as across the globe.
This article first appeared in the August 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
Emma Slattery Williams was <BBC History Revealed’s staff writer until August 2022, covering all areas of history – from Egyptian pharaohs and pirate queens to Queen Victoria and Marilyn Monroe. She also compiled HistoryExtra’s Victorian newsletter and interviewed historians on the HistoryExtra podcast.. She studied both History and English at Swansea University.
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