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Last Updated: Friday, 11 August 2006, 06:45 GMT 07:45 UK
Legacy of NI peace movement
The tragic deaths of three children in Belfast in August 1976 spawned a mass movement for peace. Thirty years after the formation of the Peace People, BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent Martina Purdy examines their legacy.

It was described in a BBC report as "part traffic accident, part terrorist incident".

Mairead Corrigan
Mairead Corrigan made an impassioned plea for peace

In truth, it became much more than that in the summer of 1976.

On 10 August, Anne Maguire was walking along Finaghy Road North with her three children when an out-of-control car plunged into them.

The car's driver, IRA man Danny Lennon, had been fatally wounded by a British army patrol which was chasing him.

The car plunged into the Maguires, instantly killing six-week-old baby, Andrew, who was in his pram and his eight-year-old sister, Joanne, who was on her bicycle.

Their brother John, just two-and-a-half, died the following day in hospital.

Their mother, Anne, was maimed physically and mentally - and would take her own life some years later.

Anne's sister, Mairead Corrigan, made a grief-stricken appeal on television for peace.

One of the Peace People's biggest rallies was in Trafalgar Square, London
One of the Peace People's biggest rallies was in Trafalgar Square, London

Her impassioned appeal struck a chord with a community traumatised by the Troubles.

Within three days of the awful tragedy, the Peace People was born.

Led by Mairead Corrigan and her friend Betty Williams, the Peace People won attention at home and abroad.

The women were soon joined by Belfast journalist, Ciaran McKeown, among others.

In the weeks and months that followed, they were forming street groups, leading marches, campaigning in the United States against funds for the IRA and had even opened their own office.

Hundreds of letters were pouring out of post bags, and Betty Williams issued a defiant message to the gunmen at the opening of the office: "The paramilitaries think we are just a funny little movement.

"This is to let them know we mean business."

Betty Williams was a co-founder of the Peace People
Betty Williams was a co-founder of the Peace People

They marched in cities and towns such as Belfast, Enniskillen and Ballymena and held one of their most high profile rallies in Trafalgar Square in London.

Hopes of a 50,000-strong crowd did not materialise.

But more than 10,000 people demonstrated for peace, while legendary folk singer, and political activist Joan Baez serenaded the crowd with the anthem: "We Shall Overcome."

Their efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland won Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams the Nobel Prize for 1976.

But in Trafalgar Square, a persistent heckler, who shouted: "Vengeance for Bloody Sunday", was a sign of underlying hostility to their cause.

When the women marched on the Falls Road, they came under attack from stone-throwing republican youths.

Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey, reflecting on republican attitudes to the Peace People, said their good intentions were hijacked by the British government intent on an anti-republican peace.

Mairead Corrigan
The best memory we can give in tribute to those who had died is to build the peace in Northern Ireland
Mairead Corrigan

Mr Maskey said their emotional response touched a chord with a lot of people, but added: "For me and others, the Peace People and their good intentions were quickly exploited and absorbed into British state policy."

Mairead Corrigan, 30 years on, rejected the criticism. She insisted the Peace People from the beginning were "no-one's friend."

She said the Peace People were clearly opposed to all forms of violence, condemning paramilitaries "across the board" and challenging state violence.

She said the movement also underscored the need for states to uphold human rights - and had long advocated dialogue as the only solution. She added: "Looking back, I think we got some things right."

Ms Corrigan also claimed the Peace People helped sow the seeds of peace in Northern Ireland.

But it is a view challenged by the movement's critics, who claimed it ultimately failed to make any difference.

Commentator Brian Feeney said their project was "hijacked" by the Northern Ireland Office, its impact "diminished" by rows over the Nobel peace prize money and an emotional message that did not fit a complex situation.

The women were attacked on the Falls Road in Belfast
The women were attacked on the Falls Road in Belfast

"It was too simplistic... simply to come out in the street and shout for peace and an end to violence," he said.

"For a huge number of people who had suffered from violence their response was: 'Well, what about justice?'"

Whatever the legacy, 30 years on, Mairead Corrigan continues to work for peace at home and abroad.

This year she was in the Middle East and this week took part in an event in Belfast to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

As she reflects on the deeply personal events of 30 years ago, she remains hopeful good can come from the tragedy.

"The best memory we can give in tribute to those who had died is to build the peace in Northern Ireland," she said.

See the demonstrations in 1976

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