Paying the Price of Peace: an interview with Nobel Laureate Betty Williams

In December 1976 Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to prevent a civil war in Norther Ireland. This interview took place in Belfast in the summer of 1977.

In war, the ancient Greek proverb offers, the first casualty is truth. Perhaps hope is second. During recent conversations in Northern Ireland, I was struck again and again at how difficult hope had become. Ideology comes much easier. Whether meeting with a group of paramilitary Republicans in a room dominated by a portrait of Lenin, or meeting with pacifists in a room stocked with the books of Gandhi, there was a similar inability to be hopeful about the future, to imagine some way of getting free of the rituals of war, arrest, torture, moralizing and counter-moralizing. Even among those most active for peace it was clear that the surge of hope born last fall and winter was largely a battered memory at the moment: that sudden, almost miraculous coming together of masses of people, responding to the sudden death of three children, across the ruins and walls and borders of violence, an unrehearsed cry for a community that would no longer allow children to be murdered. Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan had gone into the streets of Andersontown August 10, 1976, the death of the children fresh in their eyes, and declared in rage that the violence must stop, that the death of these children must be the occasion of survival for others. But with the spring came a morning after mood, with the discovery that the new peace movement, like its less dramatic predecessors, was not without its human dimension, the capacity to stumble, to speak too hastily or too often, to make strategic errors, to be somewhat dazzled by the glare of world attention, to occasion personality collisions.

Having little way to evaluate the criticisms, except to recall the similarly dispirited mood in Northern Ireland before August 10 last year, I was glad to have a long visit with Betty Williams. We met together the morning of March 18 in a bare, chilly room in a small building the Peace People share with the Corrymeely project in Belfast. (Corrymeely is a well established center that brings together Protestants and Catholics in a wide variety of ways.) The conversation is well worth sharing. Needless to say, the written word does little justice to the spoken word. At least there is no way to do written justice to the English spoken by the Irish, whatever their political loyalties and passions.
— Jim Forest

Betty Williams: I’m afraid I’m not a very good pacifist. I’ve terribly aggressive tendencies! Not that I could kill anybody. I couldn’t. But when I get kicked, I’ve an awful tendency to kick back.

Jim Forest: Isn’t that known as being human?

BW: Yes, but we mustn’t give in to these urges!

JF: Well, Gandhi always maintained nonviolence requires more discipline and courage than violence.

BW: Ira Sandperl says it as well—and that what we’re trying to become is a nonviolent army. It’s quite true too. You know, we’re playing guerrilla peace over here. It’s quite hard to do. When you get people out on rallies, they do it for emotional reasons. Not because of me. When those babies died in Andersontown, the whole city of Belfast revolted. Everyone was sick—and everyone came out. That brought on the rally phase last year, which was absolutely wonderful. We walked the Shankill, the Falls and everywhere. But that’s very much over now. You can’t recapture it.

JF: A watershed, really. A thunder shower of feeling.

BW: It was the sickening of the whole city. It was obvious what everyone felt. We simply lifted the lid—and the whole city did the rest. People still feel it. It was the charismatic phase—and now we’re getting zoned down. We’ve deliberately let this movement drop with a clank this past couple of months. Because you have to sort people out—see who really will pay the price of peace—who is going to really work hard for peace.

JF: When you visited Amsterdam recently, you brought forward hostility as well as support. At the rally in the Westerkerk, one man nearly shouted you down.

BW: I could have cried for that man. He had suffered four years in Long Kesh (an infamous prison in Northern Ireland). I don’t think he realized—and many people don’t—that we are against all violence, we don’t give a damn who it comes from. It’s not just the paramilitaries. If the guy wears a uniform, that’s twice as bad. He’s supposed to be an upholder of ‘the rule of law. Imagine that man’s experience in Long Kesh! That poor screaming man. Long Kesh. Every time I pass that place, I cringe. Have you ever seen Long Kesh?

JF: Just yesterday. Cemeteries have a more inviting look.

BW: Doesn’t it make you want to be sick? That place is part of our work. That has got to go off our landscape. Men have got to stop being lifted and stuck in concentration camps. It’s a sin. And army handling! I’ve been lifted by the British army myself—l know exactly what it’s about. I used to say that the Provos (IRA paramilitaries) were scum, may God forgive me. Who are we to call them scum? We created them.

JF: Compassion often seems as selective among pacifists as it is among militarists.

BW: Since the movement started, I’ve had to deal with the children of violence. They are so sad. Sorry, I get emotional about it. I had a young man in my house for two days recently. It blew my mind. Some of the things that kid was telling me, awful ‘things, and it came pouring
out like a river. God help that kid! Seventeen years of age, and he had lived the life of a 60-year-old. By the time ‘t was over I was physically and emotionally drained. I said, “Jesus, forgive us.” Before the movement started, I could have said “Ah, bloody wee ruffian, bloody villain…” Now I can feel only pity and compassion and love for that boy. What we’ve done to him—he’s part of our creation.

JF: I can’t forget a mother I met in Ballymurphv last summer, actually hiding two of her boys, trying to keep them clear of the paramilitaries.

BW: Sure. I’ve got a 13-year-old, almost 14. Not that he would ever get encouragement at home. But it’s so easy to hear it in school. Not to mention other factors. Paul was walking home from school a few weeks ago and an army jeep passed. He didn’t get off the road quite fast enough and a soldier shouted back at him, “Get off the road, you Irish bastard.” He’s my son — and I m a leader of the peace movement—and yet he’s bitter. “Who is he to call me Irish ‘bastard,’’ he says. “I’m Irish and I’m proud of it.” This is the thing that saddens me. People can’t see that we’re against all violence. We have a man working with us now, an ex-Provo, and now he’s up to his eyes in the peace movement. But at the start of this, he thought we were just anti-Provo. When he actually came down to talk about it, he couldn’t believe that this is anti all violence. When you see that slogan up on all the walls, “Brits out, peace in,” you can really understand it—the Ballymurphy and Turf Lodge people who feel that way. The army has committed some atrocities here—they really have. I fully understand why people feel like that. I know what it’s like to have somebody in Long Kesh. I know what it’s like even going in to visit someone—the degradation.

JF: I will never forget a young boy I talked with in Ballymurphy last summer. He described having been made to stand spread-eagled against a wall while an electric heater was put near the back of his legs. It felt to the boy as if his legs were actually roasting, blistering—though in fact the result was more like a sunburn. He wasn’t permitted even to look around at his own burning legs.

BW: How are we going to forget these things? How is it going to pass out of their minds? The psychological damage of the war is dreadful. Again, I think of the man who is now working with us who was so deeply involved in the Provos. He sees the insanity of what the Provisionals are doing now (the assassination of businessmen). He can’t agree with it. Yet he’s still very Republican minded—he’d love to see Ireland united. But it’s a dream he doesn’t think will come about by the gun. You ought to hear some of the things that have happened to him—electric wires against his privates and such things. He just can’t forget that. “Every time I see a soldier,” he says, “my reaction is to kill the bastard. I can’t help it. I’m fighting it, but I can’t help it. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at a man in uniform and not have that disgusting hate.” And there are thousands of people who have suffered this way. I was talking to a lawyer three weeks ago in Belfast. He was taking a UDA boy to court the next morning. He knew the boy was innocent, I must emphasize that. He knew the confession had been signed “under duress”—which means it was beaten out of him. Now this is a Protestant boy. The lawyer told the boy to plead guilty—because if he pleaded innocent he might do 20 years, but if he pleaded guilty he would only do 10. Now that’s evil. And it’s all part of our work. It hasn’t really hit home for a great many people, the work that we are trying to achieve. But month after month after month we’re going to get more flack as they see we really are against all violence . . . The guy with the gun, the hero. We’ve got to change all that. If even one percent of the world were pacifist, there would never be another war. Just one percent! There would never be another gun carried. Yet here we are, in this green country, with this insane little war.

JF: Though people do seem less romantic about violence these days.

BW: I don’t know. Here we sing songs to men who take lives. Very much a gun culture.
What we Peace People keep saying is that the real hero is the quiet guy the guy who gets out at a rally and shows his face, the guy who gets involved with his next door neighbors, no matter what they believe.

JF: Are you able to be on the streets in the most explosive areas?

BW: Just three weeks ago I was knocking on doors again in Andersontown. I don’t want people to think that all I do now is to fly to Holland! On a street of 69 houses, only two doors were slammed in my face.

JF: And how did the others react?

BW: “Christ don’t let them see you! Come in—they’ll kill you.” Fear. Dreadful to see the fear in their eyes. It makes me think of the Berlin Wall. Did you ever see the crosses along it? I’ve got a big lump of the Berlin Wall from the eastern sector. I managed to get a guard who spoke a little English. I said to him, “Give me a piece of the wall.” “Oh nein, nein, nein,” he said. And I said, “Oh, ja, ja, ja. It’s terrible that wall! That wall is awful.” He was smiling at me and asked, “Where are you from?” Ireland, I said, “Northern Ireland.” “Ahhh,” he said. Finally he offered me a little lump of the bottom but I said, “No, off the top, please.” And he did. He got me a lump off the top. How do human beings evolve to do these things? Building these walls? Killing? Almighty God left a message. “My peace I give to you . . .”

JF: How much does religious faith enter into this work, this life for you?

BW: Well, I couldn’t do what I’m doing without prayer. You may laugh, but i count a great deal on Mary to keep an eye out for us. I know what I can get out of my son, just by nudging him! It’s a very simplistic belief, I know, but I think Our Lady can give us a great hand.

My own background is very mixed. My grandfather was Jewish and my grandmother was Protestant. My father was Protestant, my mother was Catholic. And I’ve married an English Methodist! But I’m very like my grandfather, more than anybody. I look around at this cock-eyed, up-side-down world, this rotten world. It’s what we’ve done. How can anybody blame these atrocities on Almighty God? That’s why we came out strongly against the bishops a few weeks ago. They don’t stand up in the pulpits and they don’t say that war’s wrong—and they don’t say that God wouldn’t do it. They’re afraid of losing their congregations. They lack moral leadership. Because God wouldn’t do these things. He wouldn’t.

JF: Yet I’m amazed at the changes that have occurred in the Catholic Church just in the last decade.

BW: Not here and this is where we need it. Here in the war zones the churches are packed every week, yet the diocese is a disgrace, I don’t care who likes it. People say if you knock the bishops, you knock the faith. I love my faith. There’s not a faith I love more, having been through all the phases of it I enjoy my sacraments. I need them. Not that I’m holier-than-thou. I love a drink and I take a smoke and I can swear with the best of them. I’m just not holier-than-thou. But Once I get into the church and receive my sacraments, that’s my week. If I can go every day, I do it. Because I need them. I need God. Far more than He needs me! You know? It’s a very simple belief, but it’s true. I’m glad all this has happened to me, and yet I sometimes say, “God, why did you pick on me? You changed my whole life. Do you realize that?” We have our up days and our down days, but God’s got to be behind us.

You know, when Mairead and I speak, beforehand we put our hands together in television stations and everywhere—and close our eyes and say, “Almighty God come upon us and use us for Thy mighty purposes.” People must think we’re absolutely queer! That’s before
we say a word.

Sometimes God’s terribly devious! You know, I went through this awful phase many years ago of non-belief. We all do this, I think. Total non-belief. I had lost five babies and then I had my daughter. I was very ill after she was born and was in the intensive care unit under heavy sedation with sleeping drugs. My baby wasn’t supposed to live I woke up in the middle of the night. I know you won’t believe this, but it’s God’s gospel truth. I definitely was not dreaming. A voice said to me, “Mrs Williams, nursery sister wants you.” And shook me. “Nursery sister wants you.”

And I got up sort of hazy like that. I was definitely spoken to and I was shook. I put my two legs over the side of the bed and I removed the drip from my arm. There was a very strange blue light in the room. I got up out of bed and made my way down. Nursery sister was standing over my daughter, my Deborah. I said to her, “What’s wrong? You sent for me.” “Mrs. Williams, get back to bed! I didn’t send for you at all.”

Now that’s my experience with Almighty God. My baby was dying, but my daughter lived that night. When that happened, I just could not be the same and have that non-belief. My daughter lived that night, you know? So if you’re picked out, you have to do His work. You know? He gave me the thing I wanted most dear—He gave me my little girl. He woke me up. It happened to me. My baby lived. I don’t care whether you believe it or not. And that was my sort—well, not “saved” or “see the light” or that sort of thing. I’m not the sort to see any lights! That’s my experience of God. Waking me up that night. She lived. And there she is now, a beautiful six-year-old. You know? I’m very lucky. I think we’ll make it here. It’s going to be long, hard work. But we’ll make it. He’ll see that we do.

[published in the October-November 1977 issue of The Catholic Worker]

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