Irish Examiner View: When it took courage to call for peace

Irish Examiner View: When it took courage to call for peace
Nobel Peace Prize winner Betty Williams, (left), has died. Her last public appearance was in January with Holywood actress Sharon Stone signing a book of condolence for Northern Irelan politician Seamus Mallon. (Alan Lewis- PhotopressBelfast.co.uk)

When he died just weeks before our February election the constitutional politician Seamus Mallon’s backstory and achievements were unknown, or at least underappreciated, by a swathe of our electorate. Mallon’s age — 83 — and that of many far younger voters, the passage of time and, irony of ironies, his success, ultimately marginalised him.

Those unavoidables also marginalised many other politicians absolutely opposed to violence on either side of the North’s divide.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement may not have been his ultimate goal, a reunited Ireland was, but that deal was a Faustian pact to end decades of sectarian terrorism, official or unofficial. When set against the sweep of Mallon’s, and John Hume’s of course, political career it was an achievement almost beyond compare.

Those who Googled Mallon on his death might not have realised that when he and Hume began their journey in the late 1960s many of those in government in the North did not feel the need to hide their virulent anti-Catholic bigotry; indeed some wore it as a badge of honour.

Some, far more than is comfortable even now, were elected because they were, not to put too fine a tooth in it, openly sectarian and racist. Those poisons were active in both communities. To pretend otherwise distorts history.

If Mallon’s death stirred echoes from another time then the death of Betty Williams, a 1976 Nobel Laureate and one of the founders of the Peace People, may not have gotten the cross-generations thanks her powerful contribution deserves. She died in her sleep on St Patrick’s Day aged 76.

She was the last of the brave enraged trio who in the mid-1970s founded the Peace People. She, along with Mairead Corrigan and Ciarán McKeown, who died in September, brought tens of thousands of people on to the streets demanding an end to the violence.

That mould-breaking organisation was established after the deaths of the three children of Annie Maguire, a sister of Mairead. They died after they were struck by a car driven by IRA man, Danny Lennon, in west Belfast. He had been fatally wounded by British soldiers trying to arrest him.

Williams was an at-the-scene witness. Annie Maguire survived. Her children, Joanne (8) and six-week-old Andrew died immediately, while their brother John (2) died a day later. Annie unsurprisingly succumbed to depression and she took her own life in 1980. Tragedy heaped upon tragedy.

Though almost half a century has passed since that terrible day, its horror, its base savagery, resonates as we face a very different horror today. Today’s horror demands unity of purpose and self-discipline we may not fully understand. However, it does not demand even a pinch of the bravery shown by those who looked the bombers and murderers — again official or unofficial — in the eye and demanded they stop.

The warlords of 1970s Belfast, and Derry too, did not easily tolerate challengers. As Mallon’s and Williams’ generation slip away we still have to, as our election showed, work around legacy issues and division. That situation will persist as long as we confuse forgetting with dismissing. Mallon, Williams and thousands more deserve better — as does every one living on this island.

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