Two Founders of Peace People Receive the Nobel Peace Prize

As a result of their activities in organizing the Peace People, a group that mobilized citizens of Northern Ireland to condemn and reject violence between Nationalist and Unionist militants, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Summary of Event

Northern Ireland has a long history of bitter conflict. When, in 1921, an Irish independence movement wrested autonomous status for most of Ireland, Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom. Although Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, London had left governing responsibility in the hands of the provincial government. The population was composed of approximately two-thirds Protestant Unionists, who were committed to Great Britain, and one-third Catholic Nationalists, who were committed to a united Ireland. This sharp division in political aspirations encouraged the Unionist majority in the province to use the power of the state to curtail the political and economic opportunities of the minority Catholic Nationalist citizens. Peace People
Nobel Peace Prize;Mairead Corrigan[Corrigan]
Nobel Peace Prize;Betty Williams[Williams]
Peace activism
Northern Ireland;Peace People
[kw]Two Founders of Peace People Receive the Nobel Peace Prize (Dec. 10, 1977)
[kw]Peace People Receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Two Founders of (Dec. 10, 1977)
[kw]Nobel Peace Prize, Two Founders of Peace People Receive the (Dec. 10, 1977)
[kw]Peace Prize, Two Founders of Peace People Receive the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1977)
[kw]Prize, Two Founders of Peace People Receive the Nobel Peace (Dec. 10, 1977)
Peace People
Nobel Peace Prize;Mairead Corrigan[Corrigan]
Nobel Peace Prize;Betty Williams[Williams]
Peace activism
Northern Ireland;Peace People
[g]Europe;Dec. 10, 1977: Two Founders of Peace People Receive the Nobel Peace Prize[03030]
[g]Norway;Dec. 10, 1977: Two Founders of Peace People Receive the Nobel Peace Prize[03030]
[c]Human rights;Dec. 10, 1977: Two Founders of Peace People Receive the Nobel Peace Prize[03030]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Dec. 10, 1977: Two Founders of Peace People Receive the Nobel Peace Prize[03030]
Corrigan, Mairead
Williams, Betty
McKeown, Ciaran

The division between the two groups was exacerbated by the superior political and economic position of the Protestant Unionists. The Catholic minority viewed the existence of Northern Ireland as the theft of a province from Ireland by England, and the Unionists viewed the political opposition of the Nationalists as treason. This polarization and the existence of a permanent Unionist majority led to a series of human rights abuses in the realms of voting, housing, employment, and law enforcement. Unionist majorities gerrymandered districts in local elections such that Nationalist majorities were deprived of fair electoral representation, especially in the western areas of the province.

Discrimination in housing was systematic, as local authorities responsible for allocating public housing often deprived Catholic families of fair treatment. For example, in 1966 in Derry a single Protestant woman was awarded a three-bedroom house while Catholic families with several children were kept on a waiting list. Catholics were excluded from professional and skilled occupations and suffered a disproportionate unemployment rate. Protestant employers were urged not to hire Catholics, as they were seen as “disloyal.” Government employment was even more difficult to come by than private. The 1971 employment figures at two firms are illustrative: At Harlan and Wolf, the number of Catholic employees was 500 out of 9,000; at MacKies Engineering, it was 120 out of 8,500.

Law enforcement was under the aegis of the Special Powers Act of 1922 Special Powers Act (Northern Ireland, 1922) (made permanent in 1933), which allowed the overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary Royal Ulster Constabulary and its paramilitary reserve a wide range of unrestricted behavior. The Catholic community concluded that the function of the police was not to provide equal justice but to oppress. The state reinforced this view by applying the arbitrary search, arrest, and trial provisions of the Special Powers Act repeatedly over the years from 1922 to 1972. This state of tension and conflict led to the existence of militant groups in both communities: in the Nationalist community, the Irish Republican Army Irish Republican Army (IRA), and in the Unionist, the Ulster Volunteer force.

In 1969, the violence in Northern Ireland exploded after a civil rights movement had triggered a police response. The situation deteriorated quickly. Although the British army was called in to maintain peace, it soon became the target of the IRA. Each year brought an increase in the polarization, the violence, and the numbers of paramilitary personnel. The violence increased such that by 1976, more than a thousand people had been killed, thousands of houses had been burned, and hundreds of Catholics had been interned in prison.

Another in the long series of violent encounters between the IRA and the army occurred on August 10, 1976. This time, however, the driver of an IRA car was shot dead and the car veered into Anne Maguire and her children, damaging Maguire’s legs severely and killing three of the children. The reaction of Maguire’s sister, Mairead Corrigan, was to condemn the IRA violence in a news conference. Betty Williams, who had witnessed the tragedy, started a petition the night of the children’s deaths, also condemning the violence in the province. The two women were soon joined by a journalist for the Irish Press, Ciaran McKeown, whose media and organizational skills contributed to the development of a wellspring of support for the movement that became known as the Peace People.

Betty Williams.

(The Nobel Foundation)

Mairead Corrigan.

(The Nobel Foundation)

Beginning with vigils, marches, and other demonstrations, the Peace People’s activities mushroomed into a major series of marches that revealed the degree to which the people of Northern Ireland desired an end to the sectarian violence. The numbers attending the marches increased massively in November in the Northern Ireland cities of Londonderry, Newry, Belfast, and Omagh, as well as in London. Media attention multiplied, and prominent figures such as folksinger Joan Baez appeared at the marches, calling international attention to the movement.

In September of 1976, the philosophy of the Peace People was expressed in a statement written by McKeown, who by then was working full-time for the organization. The distinctive feature of the movement was the adoption of a nonviolent, nonpartisan, community-based program outside the traditional political and religious categories of Northern Ireland and certainly outside the traditional means of violence. Members of the Peace People separated themselves from the conceptions of peace advocated by the political groups in Northern Ireland in that they called for an end to violence not only from paramilitary groups but also from the police, the military, and prison officials. The organization asked people to commit themselves to a nonviolent transformation of society based on principles of justice and human rights that were not wedded to the polarized ideologies of Nationalism and Unionism.

The power of the events in the autumn of 1976 was such that the media, the Peace People, people in Ireland and Northern Ireland, and many outside Northern Ireland believed that transformation was possible. In December of 1976, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan received the Norwegian People’s Peace Prize. This award, organized by Norwegian newspapers and civil groups, came with $324,000 for the Peace People. The organization’s leaders put the money into creating an office for the Peace People and funding projects consistent with the group’s vision of a popularly based ideal democracy. By 1977, the organization, despite the chaotic conditions surrounding its origins, developed a constitution, a governing board, and a newsletter, Peace by Peace.

On October 10, 1977, it was announced that Corrigan and Williams were to be honored with the Nobel Peace Prize for 1976. By the time the prize was officially presented to them on December 10, 1977, at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway, their organization was increasingly under attack from outsiders. The IRA and other paramilitary groups had begun to harass and threaten the Peace People, and many politicians dismissed the organization as utopian. Attacks also came from within the movement, as criticism arose over the international media celebrity the two female founders received while McKeown, who did the hard work of community organizing, went relatively unrecognized. Differences over what to do with the Nobel Prize money led to a split between the two women. Williams kept her share, and Corrigan reluctantly did as well. The movement was convulsed by crises in leadership, structure, purpose, and especially finances. By 1980, the three founders had gone on to other phases of their lives. The Peace People remained as a small organization among others doing community work in Northern Ireland.


In the largest sense, the Peace People called attention to the crippling impact that paramilitary groups had on the lives of the people of Northern Ireland. The movement served to cast a beam of light on the arbitrary acts of terrorists and their hold over a community. Insofar as the Peace People’s efforts helped to transform the issues in Northern Ireland from military victory to justice for all, the human rights implications of the organization’s existence are clear. At the level of the ordinary people of Northern Ireland, the Peace People provided a means to express revulsion toward the violence. The Peace People showed a willingness to meet and talk with the “other side,” to build bridges between the two communities, that had not been present before.

Despite crises in the leadership of the Peace People, the movement developed formal positions on the human rights issues in the province. In 1978, the organization disseminated a report titled The Case for the Replacement of the Emergency Provisions Act by Normal Judicial Process, which called for removal of the virtually arbitrary policy and judicial powers of the government. A similar effort, titled An Open Letter to Parliament, followed in 1979. In Time for a Change, presented in 1980, the Peace People again called for a change in the 1973 Emergency Provisions Act. In 1980 and 1981, the movement attempted to formulate a position on political prisoners, producing two papers: The Hunger Strike in the Maze Prison and The H Block Protest Hunger Strikes and Emergency Law. In August of 1983, the Peace People again called for elimination of the Emergency Provisions Act.

Organizationally, the movement created 170 sections of community groups that engaged in activities designed to promote nonviolence, such as rehabilitation of former prisoners and visits to prisoners to draw them away from paramilitary activity. Community projects included youth clubs, football teams, health clinics, and economic development projects.

By the late 1970’s, the initial political and emotional momentum had left the movement, and its financial support had collapsed. The Peace People became one of a number of small community groups in Northern Ireland working with low visibility but great diligence to alleviate violence and the effects of violence. The goal of these activists was eventually achieved with the Good Friday Agreement Good Friday Agreement (1998) of 1998 and subsequent negotiations that built on it to restore general peace and stability to Northern Ireland. Peace People
Nobel Peace Prize;Mairead Corrigan[Corrigan]
Nobel Peace Prize;Betty Williams[Williams]
Peace activism
Northern Ireland;Peace People

Further Reading

  • Arthur, Paul. Government and Politics of Northern Ireland. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 1984. Provides a brief, clear review of the features of Northern Ireland’s politics, including the historical background, the divided community, and the government’s role.
  • De Paor, Liam. Divided Ulster. New York: Penguin Books, 1970. Somewhat dated, but remains a valuable, and readable, introduction to the history of the different groups of settlers and natives in Northern Ireland.
  • Deutsch, Richard. Mairead Corrigan, Betty Williams. Woodbury, N.Y.: Barron’s, 1977. The first book published on the Peace People, written by a French journalist with excellent access to Williams, Corrigan, and McKeown. Draws on extensive interview material in covering the period from the creation of the movement up through the Nobel Prize. Almost worshipful in tone; treats the problems emerging in 1977 as “growing pains” and not as the critical undermining pressures that they were.
  • Faligot, Roger. Britain’s Military Strategy in Ireland. London: Zed Press, 1983. A French journalist offers a left-wing interpretation of the Peace People. Argues that British counterinsurgency forces helped create the organization, supported by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence forces, to isolate and weaken the IRA. The founders are thus only media figures manipulated to condemn the IRA.
  • Franks, Lucinda. “We Want Peace. Just Peace.” The New York Times Magazine, December 19, 1976, 29. Written at the peak of the movement, gives a clear and powerful picture of the conditions in Northern Ireland and the perspectives of Corrigan and Williams. Uncritical in tone, as are most journalistic treatments of the movement during this period.
  • Holland, Jack. Too Long a Sacrifice: Life and Death in Northern Ireland Since 1969. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1981. Informative and emotionally engaging work by a journalist with extensive experience in writing on Ulster. Reportorial style gives a sense of the real experience of Northern Ireland. The treatment is supportive of the Catholic Nationalist position, but not in an uncritical manner.
  • McKeown, Ciaran. The Passion of Peace. Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1984. The author’s intimate insider knowledge of the Peace People makes this book useful for understanding the movement. Provides valuable insight into every part of the movement, from the emotional power of its creation to the long and bitter infighting over the structure and finances of the Peace People. A compelling autobiographical work.
  • Maguire, Mairead Corrigan. The Vision of Peace: Faith and Hope in Northern Ireland. Edited by John Dear. New York: Orbis Books, 1999. Slim volume is the first published collection of some of the writings of this Nobel Prize winner. The collected essays and letters express her “politics of mercy and forgiveness.”
  • O’Day, Alan, ed. Political Violence in Northern Ireland: Conflict and Conflict Resolution. New York: Praeger, 1997. Collection of essays covers the history of violence in Northern Ireland since the late 1960’s and the attempts to end that violence. Includes discussion of the Peace People movement.

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Anglo-Irish Agreement Is Signed

Ulster Peace Accord

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Good Friday Agreement

Omagh Car Bombing