Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Like many families in Northern Ireland, Betty’s family was touched by violence. Her Protestant grandfather, a riveter in a Belfast shipyard, was thrown down the hold of a ship that was under construction simply because his son was marrying a Catholic woman. Her cousin Daniel, a pre-med student, was killed at the age of 18, when Protestant extremists shot him as he stood at the front door of his house. Another cousin was killed when a booby-trapped car abandoned by members of the IRA exploded as he was driving past it. In Betty’s words, “The Protestants killed one of my cousins, and the Catholics killed the other.”
Betty joined the Irish Republican Army in 1972, but “didn't remain a member long.” After witnessing a British soldier shot in front of her in 1973, she knelt and prayed beside him. She was criticized by Catholic neighbors for showing sympathy for “the enemy.”
On August 10, 1976, a runaway car driven by an IRA member, Danny Lennon, crashed into a family of four who were out for a walk. (Lennon had been fatally shot while fleeing from British soldiers.) All three children, Joanne, John, and Andrew, were killed. Their mother, Anne Maguire, was critically injured and later committed suicide in 1980. Betty Williams had been driving home from visiting her mother, heard the crash, and was the first to arrive on the scene.
Betty immediately began to circulate petitions against the violence and, in less than forty-eight hours, had over six thousand signatures. When Mairead Corrigan, the children's aunt, heard what Betty Williams had done, she invited her to the children's funeral. On August 13, 1976, the day of the Maguire children's funeral, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan met with journalist Ciaran McKeown, who joined the two women in co-founding the Peace People, an organization dedicated to nonviolence in Northern Ireland and throughout the world.
Betty and Mairead organized a peace march to the graves of the children, which was attended by 10,000 Protestant and Catholic women. The peaceful march was disrupted by members of the Irish Republican Army, who accused them of being influenced by the British. The following week, 35,000 people marched with Williams and Corrigan to show their support for ending the violence in their country.
In recognition of their extraordinary action to end the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, and for their dedication to building a foundation for a peaceful future, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976.
In her acceptance speech, Betty said, “That first week will always be remembered of course for something else besides the birth of the Peace People. For those most closely involved, the most powerful memory of that week was the death of a young republican and the deaths of three children struck by the dead man's car. A deep sense of frustration at the mindless stupidity of the continuing violence was already evident before the tragic events of that sunny afternoon of August 10, 1976. But the deaths of those four young people in one terrible moment of violence caused that frustration to explode, and create the possibility of a real peace movement... As far as we are concerned, every single death in the last eight years, and every death in every war that was ever fought represents life needlessly wasted, a mother's labor spurned." She also said that, “The Nobel Peace Prize is not awarded for what one has done, but hopefully what one will do.”
True to those words, since receiving the Nobel Prize, she has traveled the world, working tirelessly with fellow Nobel Laureates wherever peace, and especially the safety and well-being of children, is at risk.
William's vision is to save the world's children by creating safe havens where they will be fed, sheltered, nurtured, and encouraged to grow to their fullest potential. This vision is becoming manifest through the work of World Centers of Compassion for Children, a non-profit organization she founded in 1997.
Betty Williams currently serves as the president of World Centers of Compassion for Children, whose mission is to provide a strong political voice for children in areas afflicted by war, hunger, social, economic or political upheaval. The aim of the centers will be to respond to their material and emotional needs by creating safe and nurturing environments. The focus of the WCCC's is to take the first substantial steps toward the creation of a program which will provide a strong political voice for children. In her travels over the past twenty years and more, Williams has often heard the testimonies of children who are clever, articulate and courageous in expressing their own needs and concerns. It is WCCC's intent to enable children to address the United Nations General Assembly on a regular basis, and to establish a system within the United Nations Court of Human Rights whereby children will have their own voices heard alongside those of their adult counterparts.
The WCCC has recently announced that they will be building their first “City of Compassion” in southern Italy. This city will be a safe haven for children who are most at risk to the horrors of war, hunger, disease and abuse. In it they will find homes, food, education, health care, love and compassion. This city is meant to serve as a model for others that can provide health and healing to suffering children throughout the world.