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Warrior for peace: Mairead Corrigan Maguire

Challenging injustice has been a long journey for campaigner Mairead Corrigan Maguire, back in the headlines for defying the Israeli blockade of Gaza, writes Alan Murray

Thrust into the media spotlight in 1976, Mairead Corrigan Maguire cut a timid, almost becalmed figure amid the chaos and fear of a truly frightening era.

Her niece and nephews — Joanne (8), John (2), and Andrew (six weeks) — lost their lives and her sister, Anne, was seriously injured when a car ploughed into them after a soldier shot dead the IRA man driving it, Danny Lennon.

Foolishly, we hoped that the tragedy of the Maguire family would shock the IRA into calling off its campaign.

My Irish Press colleague Ciaran McKeown became inextricably linked with the then Mairead Corrigan and another local woman, Betty Williams, to the extent that the Provisionals thought of shooting him. He wrote the Peace People’s original declaration, and helped organise the first cross-community marches, which attracted thousands of people.

The IRA did become worried about the potential of the Peace People to galvanise a community into resistance against it, and the Peace People’s Falls Road protest march, in particular, saw the Provisionals in their true colours as they orchestrated the mob to lob bricks and bottles at points along the route.

The 1976 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, after their mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of women to demand an end to paramilitary and military violence grabbed the imagination of the international media.

Camera crews flooded in from London and the European mainland as the movement for peace seemed to take a hold of Northern Ireland.

But with more than 300 fatalities here in 1976, more than 200 of them civilians, the Peace People grouping was overwhelmed by the sheer scale and unremitting barbarity of the conflict.

The following year, the death-toll diminished noticeably to around one third of the previous year’s carnage, and so, too, did the profiles of Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams.

The Peace People continued to exist, but the anti-violence fervour and the emotion of 1976 was never to be revived. Mairead’s sister, Anne, who was seriously injured in the accident that claimed her three children’s lives, died in January 1980 and, in September the following year, Mairead married Anne’s husband, Jackie Maguire.

Together they have raised Anne’s three other children, Mark, Joanne, and Marie Louise, and are the parents of John and Luke, who they raised outside Belfast in the comparative tranquillity of Strangford.

As a volunteer with the Catholic Church’s lay organisation the Legion of Mary, it was Mairead Corrigan Maguire’s natural inclination to continue to pursue her work with young people and prisoners through the Peace People.

She co-founded the Committee of the Administration of Justice — a group involved in the debate on legal matters and special laws — and studied at the Irish School of Ecumenics, pursuing inter-faith contact and picking up international awards along the way.

She has been awarded honorary doctorates from Yale University, the University of South Korea, the College of New Rochelle, and special awards from Trinity College, Dublin and St Michael’s College in Vermont.

Her international globetrotting is renowned — Korea, India, Africa, Bangladesh, Japan, Iraq and, of course, Israel and Palestine where in recent years she has concentrated more of her attentions.

In April 2007, the 66-year-old was struck in the leg with a rubber bullet fired by the Israeli Defence Forces, as she joined the Bil’in Peoples Committee on their weekly march from Ramallah to the ‘Apartheid Wall’ built by Israel in a bid to thwart Hamas terror attacks.

At a Press conference with the Palestinian Minister for Information, Mustafa Barghouti, she called for the wall to be demolished, and an end of the occupation of Palestine by Israel.

Since then, the situation in the Gaza Strip and Palestine generally has become more dangerous, and the humanitarian distress more acute — although the Israeli government disputes the latter assertion.

A member of Pax Christi, the International Catholic Movement for Peace, Mairead Corrigan Maguire says: “Wherever we are, wherever we live, we need to ask ourselves as Christians: if Christ lived in Belfast would he carry a gun and kill for a cause? If Christ lived in America or Britain would he support nuclear weapons . . . that could annihilate millions of our sisters and brothers in the world?” In the words of John Dear, the director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in the USA, Mairead Corrigan Maguire was “dismissed, ridiculed, and ignored, while those who called for vengeance and violence found an audience” in Northern Ireland. How true.

He describes her as a “gentle, life-giving, disarming spirit” who, since 1976, has been sowing seeds of non-violence throughout Northern Ireland and the world — one, he says, who is a persistent, gentle visionary.

Onboard the MV Rachel Corrie this week, Mairead Corrigan Maguire was perhaps internationally the best-known figure to attempt to defy the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

Another brush with Israel looms for her, and while it is highly unlikely that she and her fellow passengers will succeed, few will doubt that her vision of non-violence will persist as it has done for the last four decades and more.

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