Interview with Betty Williams, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
Dag Hammarskjöld is the reason I hold the Nobel Peace Prize in high regard, but I credit another Nobel laureate with bringing my consciousness around to international peacemaking from a very young age. Betty Williams grabbed my attention not only because she worked for peace in Ireland, but also because she was driven to do so from gut feeling and a sense of despair at the horrors she had witnessed on her doorstep. She stirred up a positive longing for peace that was previously fear-stifled, starting in her own neighbourhood. That soon went beyond locality and firmly into the international community. A mother – now a grandmother – she became an international spokesperson for children, a tireless campaigner for children’s rights, and naff as it seems to hip sensibilities, the unlikely star of a Nickelback video.
What was expected to amount to a couple of interesting quotes and some profile for her ongoing charity work with World Centres of Compassion for Children International turned into a passionate, hour-long discussion that went largely against her previously stated views on a variety of subjects. And with the at-the-time upcoming Children’s Referendum in Ireland, there turned out to be a lot to talk about…
After the work you did organising Peace marches in Northern Ireland with Mairéad Corrigan in the 1970s, how did you view your Nobel Peace Prize win? Was there an element of universal recognition of the cause you spent your time fighting for, or was it more of a platform to continue doing greater work on a larger scale?
The movement in Northern Ireland was never, ever started for a Nobel Peace Prize. If you’d asked Mairéad Corrigan and myself about a Nobel Prize, we’d have told you, ‘For God’s sake, you’re stupid!’. It was started because of the death of three children: John, Joanne and Andrew Maguire, and it says on their gravestones, ‘They died so that others may live.’
Well, I have adhered to that. To working to make sure that other children do not have to suffer as those children did. It’s very simple and it really wasn’t started for any other reason. It was definitely the shock of my life when I got [the Nobel Peace Prize] and I’m sure that Mairéad Corrigan feels exactly the same way. It was not expected and it was not intended. It was received after many, many hours of long conscience searching and learning on the job because what in the name of God did Mairéad Corrigan or myself know about being a Nobelist? You have to learn on the job because nobody tells you how to do it. However, we were smart enough to know that this would open other doors to our work in Northern Ireland. There was an old saying that went around- ‘Today the world, tomorrow Northern Ireland’. We had a cause and it’s still ingrained in the both of us, and that was to save the lives of people involved in wars that should never have happened.
You toured extensively for years after you were awarded the prize in 1976. What was the main purpose of touring and talking to people about your work?
Believe me, it was never touring. It was very hard work. We had to remember to try to get answers for the Northern Irish question. We had to take into consideration the most dreadful problems, the worst housing conditions in Western Europe, the worst unemployment problems in Western Europe – 14.5% at one point and 1.5m people without a job – so I became an ambassador to encourage investment in Northern Ireland, particularly in Germany and other regions. Why did we travel? Because we had no other choice. It was just part of the work.
How have the events of 1975 and 1976 changed your life? Where has it brought you to today and what areas and causes have become the main focus of your work?
I’ve never really quite figured that one out either, but I remember doing an interview on television and saying to the women of Northern Ireland and The Republic that if they felt the way that I did, then would they join us in these marches. It was an idea whose time had come. I’d be out talking to the women in the grocery shops and they’d be saying things like ‘Oh God wasn’t it awful what happened last night?’ I knew that the rage that they felt was being subdued by fear. I think what happened was I broke this cycle of fear because I’d broken that cycle of fear within myself. Just because it wasn’t my child, my home, or my husband. Hundreds of thousands of others were feeling exactly the same as I was. It was almost like a stampede.
The women organised those marches themselves. I organised the first march. That was at Finaghy Road North, where I lived and where the children were killed. I didn’t know that women had organised buses to get themselves to the rallying point. I didn’t know any of this until I got there. One of the most beautiful memories I have is standing at Finaghy Road North and praying to God that somebody would turn up and then the buses rolling up and the women running from the Catholic buses and the Protestant buses into each other’s arms – not saying a word to each other, just hugging each other and crying. It was almost like a huge act of forgiveness. We’d said at the first march, we’d not make any speeches or do any of that, so we didn’t. I can’t describe it, but if you believe in miracles, you’d believe that’s what happened that day. There were men sitting on the roof of the Texaco station with guns pointed down at us and I remember thinking ‘Oh for Mother of God, please don’t let me have brought anybody here to be hurt, or killed.’ It went beautifully in the end. One woman giving the other woman strength was just magnificent.
For me it’s still John, Joanne, and Andrew Maguire. It has never changed. The promise made to those babies the day they were killed, I have never broken that promise. When you see children die, something snaps within you and I was forever transformed, regardless of the consequences of my life. I knew that children shouldn’t die this way.
Can you talk about the work you do with World Centres of Compassion for Children International?
You’d have to start at the beginning. I went to teach at a University in Texas and I wanted to do something on a world level for children. I’m not a huge intellectual, though I’m quite a clever woman, but sometimes I have met people who are so intellectual that they’re stupid. If you can see in your head what needs to be done, then you can put into operation ways of getting it done. So we started the Global Children’s Study Centre. I studied in depth what was happening to children around the world. At the same time I was travelling Ethiopia, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Argentina, Nicaragua, Chile. I was forever going out to talk to children. Children can tell you anything as long as you can communicate with them properly.
So I started writing down their stories and I began to see that this issue had already been studied so many times and we already knew these things, to the extent that studying the issue was no longer relevant. We know that we have upwards of 40,000 children every day in the world who die from conditions of malnutrition. We know about children being caught up in wars – Syria being a classic example at the moment. They’re slaughtered en masse. We know all these things. So I decided ‘If we know all these things, let’s reverse the situation and start building cities of peace for children’. I didn’t know how hard that was going to be, either.
I was at a Gorbachev Summit in Rome and a girl I worked with, [Journalist with La Repubblica] Laura Kiss, told me that there was plans to dump nuclear waste in the region of Basilicata in Southern Italy. This was in the Berlusconi days. Well, we went down to this land where hundreds of thousands were protesting. In everything you do, there is a powerful force that reaches you on some level, and when we went down to this land, there was a woman there who was 86 years of age – and that’s 10 years ago. She was living in a tent, very tiny. She looked at me and said in very broken English, ‘Mrs. Williams, I fought Hitler and now I will fight Berlusconi.’ So I looked at her and I said ‘Listen, I’ll fight with you.’
After 7 long years, we’ve saved the land. We own it. We’ve saved this land from nuclear waste and using the techniques of non-violence, we’ve built a city of peace for children and that’s a first in the world.
We have to date 40 families that we are housing and the centre is now going up – the administration end of it. We had our first baby born on the 1st September. Her name is Nancy. So instead of being in a refugee camp, Nancy and her mother live in a beautiful home in Basilicata.
We’re going to be putting teams of people together – children – to be educated on how they can lobby against military budgets. That’s the next big project that we have planned. We’re going to be sending out computer programs, and we’ll be working with several people including former Russian president Gorbachev and President Darius of Costa Rica. These two men are the greatest non-proliferation experts in the world and we’ll be working with them to put a programme together so that children can lobby governments in regards to what they’re doing with their military budgets and optimally get a percentage of that budget put back from a system that has helped to destroy them.
What are the greatest barriers in trying to achieve lasting results in the work that you do?
The biggest killer in the world is apathy. The second is bureaucracy. By the time you’ve gotten through all the hoops you got to jump through, more children have died.
If somebody gets in my way I usually say ‘Please get out of my way – you’re blocking my light here!’ I can’t deal with it any other way. When people ask me ‘Why do you work for what you work for?’, I look at them and say, ‘Well, why aren’t you doing it?’
It’s known that you were never a major George W. Bush supporter. There’s a very passionate quote from you, speaking out publicly against his policies.
I know which quote you’re talking about. Was it the one where I said I could kill him? Yeah, I did say that. I said ‘I could kill George Bush’ and I also followed it through by saying ‘I could kill anyone that hurts a child’. That’s how passionate I feel. He should be held as a war criminal. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is trying to do this, and I support him 100 percent but you have to remember that if you did that, you’d also have to arrest all of the Senate and most of the Congress of the United States and hold them all responsible, because they all agreed on a pre-emptive strike.
They declare war on everything. War on drugs. War on terrorism. War on this and that. They’re warmongers and that includes President Obama.
In your view, was President Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize win in 2009 in any way justified, seeing as he didn’t move to immediately end any of The United States’ foreign wars, and according to figures, has actually stepped up drone strikes in Sudan, Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan?
When I was lecturing, I was saying ‘Anything’s got to be better than George Bush’ and ‘This is going to be the man who will sort it all out’. Did you see the [US Presidential] debate[s]? Well, I felt sick and turned it off. This is power gone absolutely bananas. They say that the United States was the greatest operation in the history of democracy – well, this is democracy gone horribly, desperately wrong. There’s nothing democratic about the kind of weaponry, or the kind of money spent on weapons, that the United States deals with yearly. There’s nothing funny about what President Obama is saying about the Middle East. There’s nothing making any kind of sense. Can America not be the world’s policeman? All it is doing within the Arab nations is building hatred that is going to take 1,000 years to cure. It’s rather like the British invasion of the Irish. 850 years later, we’re still paying for it.
It’s horrible what’s happening all over the Middle East. When I began the in-depth reading on all of the things that the United States has done, worldwide over a period of years, it is quite shocking. The awful thing about it is that the American people themselves – most of them – are not aware. They just think that they live in the greatest nation in the world, the greatest democracy with the greatest freedoms, and I know because I lived there. Bring up a subject outside of the United States and the vast majority of the people of the United States can’t discuss it, because they’re not taught it.
When I taught there, at University, I put up a blank map of the world and I asked my students to fill in the countries. You would not believe – and I’m talking about university students here – that they couldn’t even find Norway. It was very sad.
Have you any reflections on the decision to Award the Nobel Peace Prize to The European Union this year? Do you have any reservations about the laureate being given to large governmental bodies? Like the award given to United Nations, is the EU’s prize to be viewed more as a swansong or would you view it more as recognition for all democratic, peaceful Europeans?
The United Nations really needs sorting out. ‘Ineffectual’ has been the word for a long time. With the EU – any governmental organisation of that size – it leads me to skepticism. I was kind of incensed by it at first, because I’m thinking that there are so many people out there that are more deserving and that could do so much with that gift. I want to see what they’ll do with it in Brussels, but we’ll have to wait and see. I suppose having it in Brussels could stop the rest of Europe from going to war with one another, but war takes many forms.
The war now is money. It’s not guns. People are starving to death in Europe. People are hungry in Spain. Ireland has lost her brain power again. They’re all going aboard planes and going abroad because there’s no work available. We shouldn’t be on our knees to the banks here. Why didn’t we do what Iceland did? We should be stabilising our own economy and instead we’re caught up in this mire. Not that Angela Merkel is a bad human being, but she is a politician and she’ll have to tow her party line. In the midst of this, we have the suffering countries of Europe. If you really are a patriot of Europe then you should be concerned whether the man next door to you has a loaf of bread on his table. That’s being a European as far as I’m concerned.
Any thoughts on the upcoming Children’s Referendum? [The referendum, called to enshrine children’s rights in the Constitution, has since passed by a margin of 58% to 42%]
The Children’s Referendum in Ireland is very important to me, because children here have suffered dreadfully over the years, with Church abuse and other kinds of abuse. At least now it appears that the system is beginning to take that very seriously, and the Minister in charge [of children’s affairs - Frances Fitzgerald], I have a great deal of admiration for her.
They’re not going to be helping to stabilise it if they cut the benefits. That has got to come off the agenda. I know how tough it is for single mums. It’s ludicrous to look at the poor and punish them further, whilst those who have done wrong in the past, monetarily, can sit in their houses and look out at these children and not be ashamed. I think we have a wonderful minister there. She is truly a wonderful lady and she’s pushing in detail what the referendum contains. Of course, you’ve got to ensure that the government doesn’t have the power to remove children from parents who have hit hard times. We should all be vigilant to the bureaucratic end of what’s been happening to the children of Ireland. There should be a lot of discussion on this in the future and we shouldn’t all be accusing each other because the right sentence isn’t in that referendum. There’s enough organisations in Ireland that do great work to join together and help to make a constitution concerning children that can never be trampled on.
How does it reflect on Ireland that there’s less media attention for this referendum? Basically, it differs from the last few referenda because this one isn’t obviously about money.
During the Celtic Tiger, we all became Americans. We all wanted to have what America has. A lot of us lost our humanity on that road. I think we’ve all been knocked down to size again. Then they pulled the carpet on the Celtic Tiger and showed all the bad boys up. It’s time Ireland got her conscience back. I’m loving it because there’s a lot of people realizing that this lifestyle looked good, but it didn’t feel all that good.
For more information on Betty Williams, World Centres of Compassion for Children International, or details on how to get involved, please check out the WCCCI website.
Seán O’ Toole
Seán O’Toole is student journalist from Galway. Political views include: Bertie Ahern signing his booky wook in Easons; Mary Harney having her dinner one time in The Four Seasons; David Norris smiling and waving outside the Oireachtas; and Joan Burton giving filthy looks to young fellas in the Dáil Bar.