Gaza conflict brings home the need for us to work for peace
Founder of the Peace People, Mairead Corrigan Maguire was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976. She is an outspoken critic of the Israeli government's policy in Gaza.
Q. You have devoted much of your life to peace, but it all started with a very violent and tragic incident after three of your sister's children were killed by a getaway vehicle. What do you remember of that day?
A. I remember it like it was yesterday, and anyone in Northern Ireland who has lost anyone in the Troubles will be the same. We had no problems before that day. We had always lived in the community, I worked in the community, and I was very conscious of the suffering and division.
I remember that day in great detail. You move on, you forgive and you try and rebuild your life, but you remember every detail. That's why we need to dedicate ourselves to work for peace.
In Gaza and across the world today, many, many families have lost children. When my sister's children died, and subsequently she died, our message was non-violence and working for peace.
Q. It would have been very easy to drift the other way. Did you ever feel bitter or angry at what happened?
A. When my sister's children died, and the young IRA man Danny Lennon also died, for me it was just a sense of so much needless suffering. You didn't want it to happen to anyone else. So I committed my life to peacemaking. You don't want others to suffer the pain and the loss which people here in Northern Ireland suffered.
Q. At one stage the Peace People had 10,000 marching for peace. What happened in the end?
A. The Peace People started in 1976, and there were many more who had prepared the ground, for example the Corrymeela community and Rev Ray Davey, who worked to bring the different faiths together.
By 1976 people were ready for peace. Too many people had died and violence had reached a crescendo.
We marched for six months, all over Ireland, England and other countries. There was a 78% decrease in the rate of violence, and I think people using violence began to realise it wasn't working.
We stopped it after six months because you can't have people walking for ever. We told people to go back into their communities and work for peace. Those people never went away. They started talking peace, and teaching peace to their children. They are still there; their children are there, campaigning for peace, and that gives me real hope.
Q. You and Betty Williams were awarded the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize. Given the controversy around some recent recipients, such as Barack Obama and the European Union, do you think it still means as much?
A. The Nobel Committee needs to go back to its roots and ask itself what did Alfred Nobel envisage. In his will he said very clearly the Peace Prize should go to those working for fraternity amongst the nations, abolishing armies and holding peace congresses.
That has been somewhat lost by the Nobel Committee, which has implemented its own vision of what Nobel wanted.
Q. Are movements such as the Peace People more important today than ever before?
A. Yes, because we are now in a world which is armed with the most terrible weapons. If war was unleashed, we have countries across Europe which have nuclear weapons and it would be a war of unimaginable proportions.
We have never been at such a period where we've had such technological weapons which can destroy whole cities. We believe we are safe. But when people get into conflict, tensions rise and the military is in charge, things can happen, so we need to work for peace and reconciliation more than ever.
Watching what is happening in Gaza and seeing the suffering, it brings home the need for us to work for peace and solve our problems through dialogue.
Q. We have all seen the terrible images from Gaza. What are your views on that?
A. I've been to Gaza, I went in 2008 and I found tremendous suffering among its people.
It is such a small place, just 1.5 million people, cut off from the world – literally – for the last seven years.
What is happening there is a siege, a horrific siege, and an occupation and a slow genocide of young people. What Israel is doing today in Gaza, using weapons against civilians, is a war crime, and the international community should be doing more to insist Israel lifts the siege, ends the occupation and stops the slow genocide of the children of Gaza.
Q. You accuse Israel of war crimes, others might claim Israel is simply defending itself.
A. The use of phosphorus gas on a civilian population is illegal and a war crime, and that is what Israel is doing. Israeli F16s have killed hundreds of Palestinians, there are also drones, tank shellings, naval bombings, the blowing up of schools and hospitals, thousands of homes destroyed.
The American government is complicit in these war crimes because it funds Israel and provides money for Israel to buy all its military equipment.
Q. Do you think Israel is actually interested in a peace settlement?
A. I think Israel has chosen land instead of peace. On every occasion when there has been an opportunity for dialogue and negotiation for peace, Israel has launched military attacks against Gaza and the West Bank.
I don't think the political will for peace, which is necessary, is there by the Israeli government, and that is why I think the international community, particularly the European Parliament and US government, needs to start putting sanctions in place.
The steps to peace are there, but Israel hasn't made the choice for peace.
We know in Northern Ireland just how difficult and complex these situations are, but we also know they can't be solved through militarism and violence, and that includes Hamas as well. Hamas cannot solve this problem by shooting makeshift rockets. They too have to be part of the dialogue.
Q. There was an incident in 2010 when you were on board a flotilla to Gaza which was stormed by Israeli troops – what happened?
A. Because Gaza is so cut off, many people who were concerned about the children of Gaza tried to go on boats to unblock the siege. In 2008 we got in, but then the next time our boat was hijacked by the Israeli navy and we were forcefully taken to Israel, held against our will and deported.
When I went again in 2010, we were part of a flotilla. The Rachel Corrie was a boat with people from Ireland and Malaysia. We were again kidnapped in international waters, which in itself was illegal, by Israeli navy, taken to Israel and deported again.
I went to Israel two years ago to challenge that deportation.
I organised an international delegation from the Nobel Women's Initiative – five Nobel peace laurettes – to go to Israel and Palestine and see what is happening, but I was not allowed to join my sister laurettes in Israel by the Israeli government, and I was deported again.
So far I have been deported three times from Israel. I can't get in and my only crime has been to try and bring medicine and food to children in Gaza.
Q. You attempted to visit Gaza again this year?
A. I tried to get into Gaza on international women's day after we were invited by women there who were having an international peace day. One hundred women from around the world, including myself and Ann Patterson from the Peace People in Belfast, went via Egypt. Our plan was to go via the Rafah Crossing.
However, we were actually stopped at Cairo Airport and held overnight by the Egyptian government and put on the next plane home the following day.
This whole, complete cut-off to anyone from outside who wants to go in and help people is totally illegal, but Egypt is complicit with the Israeli government in keeping this siege going.
Q. Will you try again or is it time to give up?
A. Oh no, I believe you have to keep trying and have faith and believe that peace is possible. I will try again on both fronts, I will try to get in via the Rafah Crossing in Egypt and I will try to get in through Tel Aviv by appealing to the Israelis.
It gives encouragement to peace activists in Israel, and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, where there is a very strong non-violence movement.
All we can do is go there, give them hope and tell them to keep working for peace and not to support violence, because it doesn't work. We show them the little video of the Peace People in 1976, where people came out in Northern Ireland in very dangerous days and said let's sort this out by talking. It is not enormous, but it gives people a sense of hope.
Q. You've been involved in campaigning for almost 40 years. Do you think the world has become more peaceful, or is it a more dangerous place?
A. The world has its challenges, but in some ways I am hopeful for the future because I see the growth of peace movements like the women's rights movement, human rights movement and so on.
All across the world there is a great growth of civil community. It is powerful and I see it in every country I have been to.
It includes the faith traditions, the business community and politicians, some of whom want to see real change.
That is the alternative movement – we are the alternative.
When you go on the streets and hear people say they want to live in a different world, one without nuclear weapons, militarism and war, it gives me real hope.
I think we have a new consciousness in the world, and that is where the hope is. People know we cannot go on accepting war and militarism. They've had their day and they don't work.
Q. Do you think governments accept that?
A. We have to make a choice about how we spend our money. After the September 11 attack in America, the American foreign policy-makers chose a war on terror, and it was a bad choice. America has a policy of war, we know that.
There is a plan by the NeoCons for Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Iran, Syria and now Russia, where we are witnessing this demonisation of Vladimir Putin.
These are all countries that are being targeted.
People around the world see this agenda and are doing everything in their power to change it and persuade the US government to change its policy. They are destroying us, they are destroying the world.
Q. We are marking the centenary of World War One, do you think we have seen the end of global conflicts?
A. We are in a very dangerous position in Europe because I see this demonisation of Putin and the Russian government.
If this demonisation goes on, with this war agenda and propaganda, we could slip into a third world war.
The alternative is the peace movements who are saying no to war, and that we can solve this.
We don't have to choose between supporting the east or the west. That is stupid thinking.
We can support each other and all the countries in their efforts to sort it out without being forced into demonising each other. I am an optimist, but we have to work very hard to stop the slow militarisation of our society.
Q. Do you ever step back and think you're fighting a losing battle, and a peaceful world is an impossible task?
A. No, it's not impossible. If I thought I was on my own, then yes, it would seem impossible, but I'm not on my own.
There are billions of people around the world today, they all have families or little children, and they all know that we need to live in a different world.
Serious questions are being asked as to how we can work together to make a difference, and that is what gives me some hope.
I also have a very deep faith, I believe we have a lot of help.
In the final analysis, love is definitely a greater power than hate, and this can be solved.
Q. How big an inspiration is Northern Ireland in achieving peace around the world?
A. Northern Ireland is a wonderful example to the world, and people around the world look to us.
Northern Ireland is a deep ethnic, political problem, and it's about equality and power-sharing. People from different ethnic, religious, political and cultural backgrounds are trying to structure their society so it is fair and just.
You can take that to any part of the world.
We still have some way to go in Northern Ireland. We are an ethnocracy, rather than a democracy – our politics are based on our ethnic identity and we need to work to change that.
However, we can do it, and we can do it step by step together because we have peace.
As we continue to build that model of reconciliation and peace, it gives hope to other people in other countries that they can do it.
Q. With all your experience in peace activism, how do you think the world can become a better place?
A. We must reject militarism and war as ways of solving our problems, and look at what the alternative institutions are - structures which actually work and are democratic.
It means upholding international law and human rights, supporting a reformed United Nations and looking at how we challenge the military-industrial complex, where the real power is.
We need to bring ethics and morals back into our politics.
It is a huge challenge for all of us, but we start in our education system where we teach our children peace, and how we solve problems without violence.
There is a growing glorification of militarism, violence and war.
We are surrounded by violence and have almost become immune to it and accepting of it. We should not accept it. We have to challenge it and change it.
I do believe we can do it.