e-mail us


Though Nobel went to men, women helped bring peace


The constant quest for peace in Northern Ireland, finally acknowledged by a Nobel Peace Prize -- which went to men -- has long had a marked effect on the women of the region. They increasingly have sought equality in political decision-making.

This was but one theme to emerge from a recent Ulster University study: “Women, Community and Politics in Northern Ireland.”

The beginning of my trip to Ulster coincided with the tragedy of Aug. 15.

At noon on a beautiful, sun-filled day at Galway Bay, Ireland, I phoned Mairead Corrigan Maguire, a 1970s Nobel Peace laureate, at her Belfast home to confirm an interview set for the following Monday. Expectations for the success of the Good Friday 1998 peace agreement were running high.

Three hours later, people throughout Ireland were stunned as television and radio carried details of the bomb blast that ripped through the center of Omagh, County Tyrone, 50 miles west of Belfast.

Initial reports estimated the Saturday afternoon fatalities at 30 with hundreds injured while shopping and celebrating Omagh’s annual carnival. The estimates were correct.

For me it was a shocking reintroduction to the sorrows of Ireland. I was traveling north to follow up on the role of peace-process women after my 1994 visits to many Belfast and Derry women’s groups, Catholic and Protestant and ecumenical (NCR, Nov. 4 and Dec. 23, 1994).

At that time I was impressed with the women’s deep commitment to developing educational and job opportunities at the grassroots level, especially for young people. They were crossing religious and political divides to overcome violence and work for peace.

I wondered what I would find this time in the wake of the bomb. The first changes I saw were physical -- no police check stops, no armed military in the streets, less sense of impending violence and a touch of economic boom that brought with it traces of optimism.

Otherwise, Mairead Maguire’s words captured the atmosphere. We spoke at the Peace People Center on Lisburn Road in Belfast two days after the Omagh bomb. “It’s so stressful,” Maguire said, “yet people are so horrified by the terrible action, they are more than ever united to work together. They want to make the peace agreement, addressed by the new Northern Ireland Assembly, really happen.”

The newly elected 108-member assembly, the province’s first popularly elected government, is an attempt to transfer power from Westminster to the province.

Now is not a time for silence but for continued dialogue among newly elected politicians, Maguire said, and a recommitment to the way of active nonviolence. By that Maguire means all people “must recognize the sanctity of human life and pledge ourselves never to violate or kill one another, wage war, oppress or threaten others. Nonviolence challenges us to equality and justice through the ways of unconditional love, truth and reconciliation.”

Maguire said that 20 Nobel Peace laureates appealed to the United Nations to declare the first decade of the new millennium “A Decade for a Culture of Nonviolence for the Children of the World.”

The women of Ireland, both North and South, could play key roles in developing this new culture of nonviolence, she said. “Educating children in the way of nonviolence would begin in every school. We must join in solidarity with all people to create this new culture through our art, religion and politics.”

She expressed deep admiration for the many women of the North who live in the troubled areas of some cities. “Their courage and strength is an example of how the human spirit can rise again and again from great tragedy and adversity.”

Throughout the troubles, she said, “we have heard the voices of women calling for compassion instead of conflict, for collaboration instead of coercion, for cooperation instead of competition.”

The main recommendation from the Ulster University study called on politicians to “have more concern for social issues such as education, health and housing, and secondly, valuing women and what they have to contribute.” The study identified unemployment and poverty as the main problems facing women in their communities.

Maguire said the survey reports that women are calling for a redefinition of the relationship between women and men to include equality and mutuality and a voice in political decisions.

Young women especially have a great challenge to become involved in the politics of peacemaking. During my visit to the Peace People Center, cofounded by Maguire in 1976, we met three teenage volunteers, young women who live at Dungannon, a town not far from the scene of the bombing.

Still caught in the emotion of the Omagh disaster, Antoinette Campbell, age 17, said, “Everybody in our town knows someone who was affected by the bombing. I so hoped that with the new peace agreement, the violence was over.” Campbell said she hopes to bring up her children in a country free from violence and religious division. “Because I wore a Catholic school uniform, other teenagers threw rocks at me. I don’t want that to happen.”

Young people are encouraged to devise their own programs for peace with their peers in local communities. The women of Northern Ireland have joined with women of other countries in demanding their place in the church and in politics.

Northern Ireland’s women have become more politically astute, said Mary Fearos, researcher at the Women’s Coalition, a political party that campaigned for the election of Monica McWilliams and Jane Morrice to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Although 14 women were elected to the new assembly, this represents little more than 12 percent of the total 108 members.

“It will be interesting for us to see how the provision in the peace agreement which allows for equal representation of women is implemented,” Fearos said. She said the agreement gives everyone in Northern Ireland “a fresh start.” Women in the past have not sought recognition as they worked in local communities to improve education, health and housing, but now there is the possibility of moving beyond this point to gain a voice in political decision-making.

Fearos said recovery from the tragedy in Omagh will require political leadership, and people will continue to suffer through a process of deep grieving, but it will not be a setback for the work of peace.

At 3 p.m. Aug. 22, a week after the blast, a moment of silence was held throughout Ireland to recall those who had died or were injured. As our bus stopped at the Sligo terminal, all traffic, noise and conversation came to a halt. Everywhere people were praying for lasting peace and reconciliation.

The current Nobel Prize simply endorses the existing hope.

Dorothy Vidulich is a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace and a correspondent for NCR’s Washington bureau.

National Catholic Reporter, November 13, 1998