By: Michael Connors Issue: Big Ideas, Smart People Section: Nobel
Before speaking with Mairead Maguire, I had the privilege of interviewing Rigoberta Menchu-Tum for a previous ICOSA piece, and what I have found is that Nobel Peace Prize winners have a deep understanding and connection with what is best in the human spirit. This may be so because as Nobel Peace Prize winners, they have often experienced the worst that humanity has to offer in the perils of war. Rigoberta lost much of her family in the Guatemalan civil war. And for this article I was fortunate enough to speak with Mairead Maguire, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who, along with Betty Williams, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for her dedication, tireless efforts and passionate pleas in the cause of peace for Northern Ireland.
Williams was a witness to the deaths of a family of four who were killed by an Irish Republic Army (IRA) member while fleeing from British soldiers. Those killed were Maguire’s nieces and nephews. These tragic deaths led Maguire’s sister to take her own life four years later. Shortly after the funerals of the children, Maguire and Williams formed, with the help of journalist Ciaran McKeown, the Community of the Peace People, and organized a march of more than 35,000 participants who demanded an end to the violence that had gripped their country for decades. Today, many would argue that this manifestation of unity and focused collaborative effort was the beginning of the end of the Northern Ireland conflict. After speaking with Maguire, it was evident that passion, dedication, and hope are often what pulls people through such events and enables others to finally believe that peace is possible.
While her passion and dedication are apparent, what Maguire imparted was the importance of the process and collaboration. How is peace actually achieved? She helps others understand some of the fundamental underpinnings of peace that must be in place before the fighting stops. "Many believe that conflict and war are often based on religious, ethnic or racial biases, and while these may be the marks of the underclass being persecuted, they are often only superficial traits. The truth is that these traits are what help those in power segregate groups of people in order to maintain their own power," said Maguire.
Since the 12th century, Northern Ireland has experienced internal and external strife, but on December 6, 1921 with the signing of the Irish Free State Treaty, Northern Ireland officially became part of the British Union, the same union that caused the 1922 Civil War. The conflict in Northern Ireland continued for decades and became worse during the period from 1969-1998. That period, known as The Troubles, was not caused by differences between the Catholic and Protestant religions, but was instead a conflict rooted in economic and political dichotomies. In Northern Ireland, Catholics often faced discrimination—they usually lived in poorer neighborhoods and were often prevented from getting good jobs or receiving a good education. Because of this, many Catholics, or Nationalists, wanted Northern Ireland to become part of the republic to the south. However, Protestants/Unionists wanted things to remain as they were, with Northern Ireland linked to the United Kingdom.
Maguire was raised in a Catholic ghetto in Belfast during some of the hardest years of the conflict, and she explained that much of the fundamentals of the conflict were about basic civil rights. "When the civil rights movement started here, it took its cue from the civil rights movement in America. The root causes here were injustice and inequality and we had a minority community that didn’t have the right to vote. Had we had real political leadership in those days, you would have had to deal with the root causes of division and inequality in order to really have peace, but tragically that didn’t happen for all sorts of reasons. Instead of going down the road of social and political reform, we went down the road of violence," she said.
She explained, "As long as you have populations that are segregated and inherently unequal, you will have political, social, civil and economic inequalities that are part and parcel of the system. These inequalities and the injustices, perpetuated in the absence of equality under the law, fester and over time lead to violence. Thus, it is imperative that individuals and governments work together through collaborative models in order to facilitate change."
This focus on human rights as an integral function of peace is also why Maguire and Menchu-Tum belong to the Nobel Women’s Initiative. "Women and children often suffer the most as a silent population with the least rights within an already oppressed group. So while it is fairly easy to identify those who are disenfranchised, it is the work of peacemakers and those dedicated to the hope of nonviolence to ask, what is the solution here?" said Maguire.
Because the world is becoming so interconnected today, it almost seems to share one large consciousness. The importance and relevance of international influence is not to be understated or ignored. Maguire outlined some of the actions that individuals and governments could participate in to help bring peace to the Middle East. "We won’t solve the problem. We are outsiders. But, we can stand in solidarity with the Israelis and Palestinians and say that militarism and paramilitarism is not going to solve the problem here. Let’s do it through dialogue," she maintained.
"The American government currently funds the Israeli government’s huge military budget. If American officials firmly said to Israel tomorrow morning that there is a solution here and that what they are doing affects everyone in the Middle East—problem solved! America has the power to do that because it holds the purse strings. It is in everyone’s interests that the Israeli government moves toward policies that are fair and just. But, what is lacking is the political will inside the Israeli government to move forward. There are solutions and it is possible. I have hope. I really do have hope that there will be great changes in Israel and Palestine," asserted Maguire.
While the direction may be clear, political will and diplomacy often seem to be lacking, perpetuating a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. But this is where the new global consciousness and cooperation becomes paramount according to Maguire.
Perhaps no generation personifies this new global consciousness better than the youth of today. For the last 15 years, Maguire has been involved in PeaceJam (www.peacejam.org) and has supported its mission to infuse young people with a passion for peace by connecting young people with the tools and inspiration they need in order to create change. Co-founded by Dawn Engle and Ivan Suvanjieff, PeaceJam is an organization that gives voice to Nobel Peace Prize laureates to inspire, instruct and personify the business of peace. Her hope is that future generations may grow up in a world where peace is no longer the exception, but the rule, and that violence is intolerable.
Of PeaceJam, Maguire states, "I just love Dawn and Ivan, the founders of PeaceJam. What that couple has done through PeaceJam has really spread—not only in America but in other countries. Billions of young people have gotten involved in works of peace, and it is a wonderful model of really how we will build a new culture of non-killing and nonviolence starting with our children. That is a model that can be used in any culture."
Maguire shared her thoughts on peace. They should be highlighted and promoted in order to inspire all of us to action. She said, "Gandhi taught that nonviolence does not mean passivity. It is the most daring, creative, and courageous way of living, and it is the only hope for our world. Nonviolence is an active way of life which always rejects violence and killing, and instead applies the forces of love and truth as a means to transform conflict and the root causes of conflict. Nonviolence demands creativity. It pursues dialogue, seeks reconciliation, listens to the truth in our opponents, rejects militarism, and allows God’s spirit to transform us socially and politically."
Michael Connors has an M.A. in literature and an extensive background in teaching. He is a Colorado native and spends his free time in the Rockies skiing and hiking.