Betty Williams

Betty Williams didn’t start off as an activist. She was a Protestant office receptionist from West Belfast. In 1976, she witnessed a horrific tragedy in which three innocent children were killed by the swerving car of an Irish Republican Army gunman. The shock motivated her to launch an appeal against the meaningless use of violence in the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, known as the Troubles. She quickly organized a petition and was joined in her efforts by Mairead Corrigan, the aunt of the deceased children, and journalist Ciaran McKeown. Together, they formed a mass protest movement, initially known as the Peace Women and later called the Community of Peace People.

The Peace People organized nonsectarian marches to end the violence. In one instance, 10,000 Catholic and Protestant women marched to the graves of the children. The following week, 35,000 people joined in to show their support for ending the conflict and unifying the region. Williams was awarded the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Mairead Corrigan, in recognition of her brave and determined efforts to build a peaceful future in Northern Ireland.

The Troubles dragged on for 22 years after the founding of the movement, but the Peace People were seen as the first sign of public resistance to the violence and public desire for unity among Catholic and Protestant communities. Many believed that Williams’ movement may explain the sharp reduction in the number of killings after 1976.

Betty Williams, who passed away in March 2020, was a woman of great courage who devoted her 76 years to seeking justice through nonviolent means. She closed her Nobel lecture with these words: “We dedicate ourselves to working with our neighbors, near and far, day in and day out, to building that peaceful society in which the tragedies we have known are a bad memory and a continuing warning.”