Interview with Mairead Maguire, Co-founder of the Community of Peace People and Nobel Peace Laureate, 1976

Mairead Corrigan-Maguire was the co-founder, with Betty Williams and Ciaran McKeown, of the Community of Peace People, an organization that attempted to encourage a peaceful resolution of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The two women were co-recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976. We had the opportunity of meeting Mrs Maguire, who is a charming and dedicated peace worker.
Q: How did your commitment for peace start?
We started back in 1976 at the height of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Three of my younger Sister’s children were killed and that is what started the Peace People. We are a small grassroots peace movement. In the first six months of the movement, there was a 70% decline in the rate of violence because thousands and thousands of people marched for peace. We organized rallies every Saturday for six months, and all of these people marched for peace. This was the beginning of trying to bring the two communities in Northern Ireland together –– to end violence through dialogue and peace awareness.
Today, we have a small peace centre where we continue our work on non-violent education, peace-building and development. We are trying to advance the ministry for peace so that it works in Northern Ireland. The whole idea is that we can solve our problems through non-violence.
Q: We do not hear of problems in Belfast anymore. It everything OK now?
Well thank God! We now have a devolved Government, and power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland. A lot of the issues that arose in the early 1960s when the violence broke out –– basic civil liberties, human rights and the resulting conflict ––are being dealt with. People are trying to work together to solve the problems. That does not mean that we do not have a lot of work to do. When you come out of a violent conflict, you inherit a divided society with many problems, but we can work them out. Once the violence was been taken out of the situation, the other issues can be dealt with.
There’s a long way to go, but I think and hope that we can solve these ethnic and political problems ––not through Armed struggles, nor through Government removing basic civil liberties, nor through militarism, but through dialogue and negotiations. People are prepared to sit down and solve the problems. That to me is hopeful.
Q: Do you think trade is an important factor in creating peace among people?
Yes, I believe that trade is an important factor that is worth examining in the whole Northern Ireland process. You can see that the two communities (Catholic and Protestant) in Northern Ireland were fearful of each other and divided, but people from outside were able to help and to mediate the conflict. The fact that we began to have more trade links with the Republic of Ireland helped bring people together. Certainly, trade and economics help people on the ground to see a change. However, I also think it’s very important to understand ethnicity and identity whenever you have a conflict. We have seen this in Myanmar where there are different ethnic groups; we have seen this in Georgia. Whenever you have these ethnic conflicts you have to understand that it’s about emotions; it’s about how people describe themselves and their sense of identity. We need to realize that, while identity is important, we have to recognize our common denominators. We have to recognize that we must solve our problems together; we have to put common humanity above the things that divide us. Culture and languages are important, but we need to move beyond nationalism, beyond tribalism, beyond all of the issues that separate us –– to see our common humanity.
Trade does not do that for you. Coming together and looking at another person and recognizing that we are different, but we need each other, we have a lot of similarities –– that’s a different approach when you have an identity/ethnic conflict. If people feel insecure, threatened –– as happened in the Northern Ireland –– they are frightened because they feel that something is being taken away from them. Ethnic annihilation is one of our deepest fears.
You see it in the Middle East; you see it in Israel. The politics of Israel and Palestine are about fear. Jewish people are afraid that their identity is being challenged or threatened, and this leads to a kind of panic. You need to reassure people and say: “It’s all right,” and encourage them to move beyond nationalism, tribalism –– thing that keep us separate –– so that they can solve the problems together.
Q: It’s not an easy task?
It’s a huge task and requires a multi-dimensional approach. Bringing people together gives them a higher standard of living, creates new government and a better quality of life. You avoid having –– As we had in Northern Ireland in the mid l960 – Majority rule which meant that the Unionists (i.e. Protestants) were controlling the entire political structure and the minority did not have basic Civil rights – one man one vote, fair housing jobs etc., When the Nonvioent Civil Rights Movement started In the l960’s in Northern Ireland it was to demand basic civil rights for the Minority community.
We learned that it was important to have all inclusive power sharing structures In order to build an equal and fair society. Creating partial structures within governments makes people angry.
There are so many approaches to these ethnic- political conflicts and that is why everybody has to work together. You need the politicians, you need the business people, the community activists –– you need everybody working together so that we can move forward.
Q: Don’t you think that politicians use people’s fear to gain power and make the situation worse? How can we change that?
I think that people in the communities are mobilizing and organizing themselves and beginning to deal with the problems –– whatever they are.
What we often have at the moment is governments sharing power between communities on an ethnic basis –– and that will not work. It is like building a house from the top down. We must build democracy from the bottom up. The people have got to build communities, to mobilize themselves, to handle different issues and to give people strength. Then you can move on and co-operate with people in the next community, and so on.
Democracy is built from the bottom up. In that way it brings more accountability to the government. We empower people in communities to take more responsibility and work with political leaders and challenge them to tackle the real issues –– to serve their people. We have to be responsible in our communities and work with people in our immediate country. The next challenge is how to build global structures, because we cannot survive on our own. We are now building global structures.
It’s a different approach –– a non-violent democracy-building approach.
Q: There has been a lot talk about the clash of civilization, especially since 11 September 2001. One part of the world is seen as bad and the other not. How can we change that?
I think that people should understand that there are millions and millions of us who want peace in the world. However, we are involved in a struggle between the Great Powers, a struggle for domination. The United States of America is in struggle to dominate –– going into Iraq and Afghanistan is about oil. It is about the USA getting business in these countries. This may have even been planned before 11 September.
The United States has this perception of itself as the policeman of the world, that it can protect countries and carry out business all over the world. There are several hundred American bases around the world, but no other country has a base in the USA!
We are caught in this power struggle. I think that we have to say to the government of the USA: “Look. We live in a globalized world. We are inter-connected now. We are the human family. We cannot afford for one country to be in control of the whole world. Yes, you are interested in oil, in gas, in pipelines, etc. What you should do is to negotiate fair prices. Find out what resources those countries have to trade and are ready to share with everyone. That is the proper way to do it.”
Not like they did in Afghanistan or in Iraq where they are employing huge resources to control the oil.
We know what is happening. We have the Internet; we have the media; and we know what is fair and what is unfair. We have to say to the government of the USA: “Change your policies because they are not working. You are hurting too many people. The United States of America has a good history of upholding international law and human rights. You are a member of the human family; you are not the domineering controller.”
Thinking people in the world know this. What we need to do is to strengthen the United Nations and to make it more fair and equitable in lots of ways. Then, when conflicts arise, the United Nations can deal with the issues through negotiations and diplomacy. It can be done. It is possible to move away from military solutions.
A lot of fear has been generated in people’s minds. We ordinary people can break that fear. We can go to these countries, as I do in Palestine –– all over. Let’s listen to each other because there is so much in common between the Arabs and the Western world, and we need each other. The aim is fair political systems and justice for everybody. I think we can do it.
Scientists are talking about building a global electricity grid around the world. Isn’t that amazing? A global network around the world. It is amazing when we see each other as human beings and we work together.
Q: Your eyes are shining when you talk about all this. How do you manage to keep your commitment, because what you are doing is not easy?
Well, I enjoy it and I find it very challenging. I think that people are great and I see the possibilities. Everybody has their own story of both suffering and joy. People are wonderful.
For further information about the Peace People have a look at their website: