The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Betty Williams, Nobel laureate and leader of peace movement in Northern Ireland, dies at 76

Betty Williams, left, and Mairead Corrigan in Belfast in 1976, displaying whistles donated to their cause. (Peter Winterbach/AP)

During the Troubles that wracked Northern Ireland in the late 20th century, Betty Williams saw a stray bullet strike a toddler astride a tricycle. Two of her cousins were killed in the sectarian conflict, which pitted British loyalists, who were mainly Protestant, against Irish republicans, who were largely Catholic, in a violent struggle over whether the region would remain part of the United Kingdom or separate to form a united Ireland.

But it was the carnage that Ms. Williams witnessed on the afternoon of Aug. 10, 1976, that moved her to abandon her anonymous life as a Belfast mother of two for one of full-time advocacy.

On that day, a British soldier shot the driver of a getaway car belonging to the paramilitary Irish Republican Army. The car veered onto the sidewalk, striking a woman and three of her four children, including a 6-week-old baby. Two of the children were killed instantly; the third died soon after. The mother, Anne Maguire, was severely wounded and later died by suicide.

Northern Ireland’s Troubles began 50 years ago. Here’s why they were so violent.

In the days after the children’s deaths, Ms. Williams, who was already active in a local nonviolence campaign, undertook a grass-roots effort to stop the slaughter. With Mairead Corrigan, one of Maguire’s sisters, she began organizing petitions and marches that drew thousands and then tens of thousands, with participants from both sides of the conflict.

The Troubles would go on for decades. But Ms. Williams and Corrigan — along with Ciaran McKeown, a journalist who helped them found the organization that became known as the Peace People — attracted worldwide attention to their cause and were credited with reducing the violence, which is estimated to have taken more than 3,500 lives.

Ms. Williams, a co-recipient with Corrigan of the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize, died March 18 at a hospital in Belfast. She was 76. Gerry Grehan, the current chairman of the Peace People, confirmed her death and said the cause was viral pneumonia.

Ms. Williams was in her early 30s when she was thrust to international renown with the awarding of the Nobel Prize. She made a compelling representative for the cause of peace in Northern Ireland: The daughter of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother and the granddaughter of a Jew, she was raised Catholic and defied entrenched societal conventions by marrying a Protestant.

Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ Are Felt In Mixed Marriages

The Troubles — the term used to describe the three decades of guerrilla-style conflict in Northern Ireland — started in the late 1960s. As they began, “thousands of women like me began to talk about them — but always in private, among close friends we could trust,” Ms. Williams said in remarks quoted in an obituary published by the Daily Telegraph.

“We never spoke out openly, because we were afraid of the IRA and what they might do if we revealed our true feelings. But the dam burst when those three children died. There had been other tragic deaths, but the tragedy of the little Maguires was the moment when I felt we just could not take any more.”

Within days of the children’s deaths, she and Corrigan had organized a protest of 10,000 people, largely women, both Catholic and Protestant. Subsequent marches quickly drew even larger crowds.

“In the space of four weeks, weeks that have stood their lives on edge, these two Belfast women have created more optimism and hope than anyone has seen in this dismal province in years,” a New York Times reporter wrote in 1976.

At marches, they distributed whistles, so that anyone who witnessed an act of violence could sound an alarm. Among some republican militants, Ms. Williams and Corrigan were regarded as enemy collaborators. Ms. Williams received death threats.

“I’m mentally prepared for death,” she said at one point, according to the Telegraph. “I would love to get my private life back, but I care enough for the Irish people to say that if I have to give up my private life, I’ll do it.”

The Troubles persisted until the 1998 power-sharing accord known as the Good Friday Agreement. By then, the peace movement had faded because of what the Nobel Prize website characterizes as internal dissension and “the spreading of malicious rumors by Catholic and Protestant extremists.”

“I didn’t start the peace movement,” Ms. Williams told the Houston Chronicle in 1993. “I just gave it a voice. IRA, PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] — in the end, all you are left with is a mother with empty arms.”

Why a 1972 Northern Ireland murder matters so much to historians

Elizabeth Smyth was born in Belfast on May 22, 1943. Her father was a butcher, and her mother was a waitress, according to the London Times. She attended Catholic schools and recalled that “in our house . . . the word ‘bigotry’ did not exist.”

“When I was a little girl, I came home one day in Belfast and told my father, ‘I’ve met a girl — but she’s a Protestant,’ ” Ms. Williams told the Times. “My father told me that if he ever heard a sentence like that again out of my mouth, he’d smack my face.”

Although the Nobel Prize buoyed Ms. Williams’s cause, she likened the award in some ways to a “crucifixion.” She said that the IRA maligned her with rumors that she had used some portion of the prize money for her personal enrichment — there were conflicting accounts on this point — and that the organization had devolved amid internal conflict.

“It makes a lovely sensational story, doesn’t it? Split up with movement, Betty resigns, she and Mairead fall out. There was never any of it going on,” she told the Chronicle. “It was in the IRA’s interest to discredit us.”

In 1980, Ms. Williams left the peace group and moved to the United States. Years later, she told a television journalist, “I didn’t walk away from Belfast. I ran.”

Ms. Williams lived in the United States for about two decades before returning to Ireland in 2004. She was a founding member of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, an advocacy group created by female peace prize laureates that seeks to empower women.

She was an outspoken critic of President George W. Bush and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, declaring publicly in 2007, “Right now, I could kill George Bush. . . . No, I don’t mean that. How could you nonviolently kill somebody? I would love to be able to do that.”

Ms. Williams’s first marriage, to Ralph Williams, and her second marriage, to an American, James Perkins, ended in divorce. Survivors include two children from her first marriage, Debbie Williams and Paul Williams; a sister; and three grandchildren.

McKeown died in 2019. On Ms. Williams’s death, Corrigan described her as “a woman of great courage.” During their demonstrations, the two women and their fellow protesters found a poignant way of disarming militants poised to intervene. They would join in singing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”

Read more Washington Post obituaries

Loading...