More than thirty years have gone by since Mairead Maguire won the Nobel Peace Prize, but she hasn’t lost her passion yet.
Maguire shared the Nobel in 1976 with Betty Williams for their efforts to end the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Maguire and Williams co-founded Peace People, an organization primarily focused on Northern Ireland but also working on other conflict areas.
Maguire has been relentless in her activism since receiving the Nobel. She has engaged in civil disobedience outside the U.N. headquarters and the White House in protest against the Iraq War. She has traveled around the world—to places such as the former Yugoslavia and the Congo—to spotlight atrocities and to show her solidarity with activists. She visited Afghanistan in December to meet with the Afghan Peace Volunteers, a grassroots youth organization.
But it is the Israeli occupation of Palestine that has occupied much of her attention in recent years. Maguire has been detained and deported by the Israeli authorities a number of times. She has been shot in the leg with a rubber bullet and has been tear-gassed during a march. She is currently barred from entering that country.
So it was only fitting that I met Maguire during her trip to New York City in October to be on the jury of a tribunal dealing with Israel/Palestine. Maguire presided over the Russell Tribunal on Palestine alongside writer Alice Walker, activist Angela Davis, former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. I had a friendly chat with Maguire in the lobby of the hotel where she was staying. Maguire exuded genuineness and warmth as she talked about her life.
Q: How did you get started as an activist?
Mairead Maguire: In 1976, we were at the heights of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. We were on the brink of civil war. It was very bad. On the tenth of August, 1976, one of my younger sisters was out walking with four of her children. There was a clash between an active service unit of the Irish Republican Army and the British army. The army shot dead the IRA man driving a getaway car. The car went up on the footpath and killed three of my sister’s four children. She became dangerously ill and was not expected to live. I came out politically then and joined another woman and a man. All three of us said that this violence and killing have to stop, and that there has got to be another way of solving our problems. We started what became known as the Peace People, a movement committed to nonviolence and to social and political change.
Q: How has your Christian faith inspired you?
Maguire: I was born into a Catholic family. I grew up in West Belfast. Faith was very important to us eight children and my mother and father. It was grounded in the Christian tradition of social involvement. When the Troubles started in 1969, I lived in a community where there was a good deal of violence. You had the British army and you had the IRA. I witnessed a lot of violence, and I found myself asking the question: Do you ever use violence to try to bring about political change? I always opposed the armed struggle of the IRA. Our community stood up against them at great risk.
But I was forming the question because we were living under emergency laws and had to face all sorts of problems. I went on a journey to find out if you would ever use violence. One young IRA man said to me: “There is such a thing as a just war. The Church blesses just wars, and we’re right to be using violence for change.” Well, I studied the just war concept, and I realized that it is a phony piece of morality. You really can’t apply it.
More than that, I looked at the cross and Jesus. The cross to me is complete nonviolence because Jesus said, “Love your enemy. Do not kill.” I realized that I could never kill anyone or hurt anyone, but I was committed to trying to bring about social and political and economic change. That was my journey in the early ’70s to pacifism and nonviolence. I never used those terms because I wasn’t used to those terms as such. When Peace People started, I was more prepared for a nonviolent movement by looking at Gandhi and King and Abdul Ghaffar Khan. All of these people suddenly came alive for me because we needed their methods to bring about change.
Q: Who in the Catholic faith tradition have been heroes to you?
Maguire: From when I was very young, I always admired Dorothy Day. I had never been to America till the early ’70s, but I had read about the work of Dorothy Day and her commitment to nonviolence and the poor.
I also knew about the Berrigan brothers. When I started coming to America, I admired their absolute stance on nonviolence, armaments, and war. I have always been inspired by the American peace movement because it is operating in a very hard and militarist environment. To stand up for peace and against war and for disarmament is very courageous here in America.
Q: As a pacifist, how do you confront absolute evil?
Maguire: We have to start from the fact that there are always alternatives to violence. We mustn’t start off with the idea that there’s only militarism, invasions, and occupations. We really have to look: What are the alternatives here? That’s what we were saying in our community in Northern Ireland when we were faced with death threats, when our cars were destroyed, and paramilitaries were after us. We were saying no to bombing and paramilitarism. That wasn’t justice. That wasn’t solving our problem. We were moving around in circles for seven years and people were dying every day. It was getting worse. So, we had to find another way of trying to solve our problems. You talk to your enemies. You sit down and talk to them and say, “Why are you so angry? Where’s your problem coming from, and we’ll work this out together.” We were not against anybody; we were for life, for respect, for change.
We mobilized for six months. Our approach was to try to bring down the fear in the community and to come together to say, “How do we build a Northern Ireland identity? How do we work together to have a bill of rights and shared political structures?” We went to communities that had a great deal of violence and set up discussions and provided platforms for people who otherwise would be committed to the armed struggle or to the loyalists. We had them coming together on the same platform to talk. That was very important—step by step—for bringing together people to realize that they could solve their problems without killing each other. We had rallies throughout Northern Ireland every Saturday, and also throughout Ireland, in England, and in other parts of the world. The point was to try to bring down the fear between the two communities. We were trying to see how we could connect.
That worked because in the first six months of the peace movement there was a 78 percent decrease in the rate of violence. And it never went back up again.
Q: Why have you been so focused recently on the Israel/Palestine issue?
Maguire: Well, I was recently in the Congo. I was working with the Nobel Women’s Initiative on rape and conflict situations. So, I am very much involved with other countries. I went to Argentina during the military dictatorship. Then, I was in Iraq before the Iraq War. People invite you and you go in and you try to support people on the ground. You try to find a solution.
I first went to Israel/Palestine at the invitation of Rabbis for Human Rights and the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions. When I saw the situation on the ground—how the Palestinian people were suffering—I was absolutely horrified. Then I started going on a regular basis. I was very interested in the West Bank and the nonviolent movements there, which you never hear much about. Palestine has a very strong nonviolent movement, and we started going every year to support people in Palestine who were calling for a nonviolent solution and to an end to the occupation.
Why I keep going is that I am very hopeful that there is a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian injustice. In Northern Ireland, people said there would never be a solution. But once people begin to have the political will and force their governments to sit down, it can happen. I went to Gaza in 2008, just before Operation Cast Lead. In Gaza, we actually met with Hamas and spoke with the parliament. All of the political parties—Hamas, Fatah—were saying that they want dialogue and peace. The week after we left, Israel bombed Gaza, committing war crimes. It just confirms that there is no political will for peace in the Israeli government. They’re not serious about political peace because they’re still building settlements and demolishing Palestinian homes. That is a great tragedy.
Q: Along what lines do you envision the solution to be?
Maguire: It’s not for me to say from the outside what the Palestinian people should have. That would be very arrogant. People have the right to come and choose their own political solutions. As a person committed to human rights and international law and the right of self-determination, I would like to see the occupation end. And then it is up to the Palestinians themselves to decide what they want.
Q: Could you describe some of what you’ve gone through during your visits to Israel?
Maguire: I was on the Free Gaza boat in 2008 to bring in some medicine to Gaza. We sailed from Cyprus. We were hijacked by the Israeli navy. When I arrived in Israel to get medical treatment, we spent a week in prison. Then we were deported. When I tried to go back in again to Israel on the Rachel Corrie boat—as part of the Mavi Marmara convoy—we were forcibly taken by the Israeli navy and deported again. I tried to go back in via some Palestinian women. We asked them, “How could we help?” And they said, “Could you bring in a delegation of Nobel women to us?” So we arranged for a delegation to go into Palestine, and I flew into Israel to try to join them. The Israeli authorities said, “No, you’re not allowed in.” I refused to leave Israel because I said, “Well, I should not be deported. I never broke the law. I want this heard in court.” I did have my day in court. They actually had the case hearing on whether I had any right to come into Israel. The court agreed that I had no right, and they deported me immediately again. So, I never got to join the Nobel women.
Q: You’ve been active with the Nobel Women’s Initiative. What specific issues does the group focus on?
Maguire: One of the Nobel women is Shirin Ebadi.
Shirin can’t go back into Iran because it wouldn’t be safe for her. We’ve been supporting Shirin Ebadi and highlighting women’s issues in Iran. Some of Shirin’s colleagues who’ve come out for defense of women’s rights in Iran are currently in prison with long sentences.
We’ve started a big campaign to end rape in conflict situations, at the request of women in the Congo, Kenya, Burma, and Colombia. Rape is a product of war, and they asked us to highlight this as much as possible to get governments to take this as a very serious issue. That’s what we’ve been doing.
Q: Is there more camaraderie among the Nobel women winners as compared to the men?
Maguire: Mikhail Gorbachev organizes a Nobel summit every year. I go to that each year. We focus on issues like disarmament. Everybody knows each other, and we have good friendships there.
What happened with the Nobel Women’s Initiative was that Jody Williams started this to focus on women’s issues. Men don’t always focus specifically on women’s issues like rape and sexual violence. We worked with Shirin and Jody and Leymah Gbowee and Rigoberta Menchú. We have an organization in Ottawa and a staff of about a dozen. We really can do things in support of each other very, very quickly. So, we have a close network, and we all get on very well. We all support each other in whatever area of work we’ve been engaged in, and this May in Belfast we will be having a conference. It’ll be on the theme of beyond militarism and war to a nonviolent world.
The experience of a lot of us women is that too much money is being spent on militarism and war. We need human security: food, education, health care for our children. We don’t want to waste it on wars and militarism. That will be our focus: building a culture that moves away from militarism.
Q: You’ve publicly defended WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, in spite of the charges against him. Why so?
Maguire: I think Assange has been very courageous. I’ve also defended Bradley Manning. I think they’ve been tremendously courageous in telling the truth, and the public has the right to the truth. The fact is that the American government and NATO have destroyed Iraq and Afghanistan. Their next targets will be Syria and Iran. We as a human family are on this train that is taking us into more and more war and more and more abuse of human rights where a lot of civilians are being killed and where human rights and international law are being set aside by America and NATO. We’re in a very dangerous situation, and it’s all being covered up. Julian Assange and WikiLeaks told the truth. In doing that, he did all of us a great service. To me, this is all a political campaign just to silence him. Those of us who believe in human rights and the truth—particularly the journalists and the media—should stand in defense of Julian Assange and Bradley Manning. We owe them a lot for telling us the truth of what is happening in our world, and that is why I would continue to support them.
Q: What are your views of your fellow Nobel laureate Barack Obama?
Maguire: President Obama continues to support war. He continues to remove many basic civil liberties and human rights. He continues to condone drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan that kill women and children. He meets with his advisers every Tuesday morning and signs extrajudicial killings. To me, those are not the actions of a peace person. We need political leadership that will move the world away from war into solving its problems through dialogue and negotiation, to build friendship with people, which is not what we’ve had with this war on terror. Setting aside human rights and international law to have an agenda of war and killing and occupation to me is totally unacceptable.
Q: You declined to attend a Nobel summit in Chicago last April after initially accepting the invitation. What was the reason?
Maguire: The State Department, i.e., the American government, was hosting that, and to me the Nobel Peace laureates should not be hosted by a State Department that is continuing with war, removing basic civil liberties and human rights and international law and then talking about peace to young people. That’s a double standard.
Q: The U.S. government has hassled you on your visits to the United States.
Maguire: I came here in 2003, and I did a forty-day fast outside the White House to oppose the Iraq War. I was arrested with about forty others. I came on two other occasions and did nonviolent civil disobedience again against war and nuclear weapons. Because of these charges, whenever I now come into America, I’m always questioned as to what my background is.
Q: You’ve been an activist now for more than forty years. What keeps you going?
Maguire: People keep me going. I believe people are wonderful. The vast majority of people have never hurt anybody in their lives, don’t want killing, don’t want wars. In all the countries of the world, they just want to love their families and get on with their lives. I believe passionately in the power of people. I support the Occupy movement here. I support the Gandhian movement in India. I go to places and I see all these people working on peace education and on a culture of nonviolence and non-killing. You look at all these different movements going on: the environment movement, the interfaith movement, the human rights movement, the youth movement, and the arts movement.
Once we link up and network, there will be new institutions, new beginnings, and a change in the economy because capitalism is destroying many people’s lives. It’s just one leap to think in a different way. I believe in a non-killing future.
Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive and co-editor of the Progressive Media Project, is the author of the recent book “ ‘Islam’ Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today” (Praeger).
If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of the Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "How Mark Twain’s Politics are Obscured in His Museum."
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