Belfast citizens pursue peacemaking in shadow of Nobel Prize winners

We sit in a wintry, upstairs room in an old Belfast house, with snow outside and a single gas radiator inside. Her face is familiar from countless newspaper photos: the wide mouth, the wide-set eyes.

As she talks, Mairead Maguire's fingers fiddle with a small, well-used woolen bag, white with black zigzag lines. She leans forward, the bag opens, and into my hand slides a large metallic disc, glinting in the light.

It takes a moment to realize that in my palm is the Nobel Peace Prize - 250 grams of pure gold that symbolize the high-water mark of Ulster peacemaking. The medal was awarded in 1977.

Today, Ulster remains a tense and divided province. Protestant and Roman Catholic communities stay largely separate. Violence has lessened somewhat but since 1976, 657 people have been killed and 9,589 terrorist incidents recorded.

The peacemakers here are much less visible than they once were.

The medallion's owner - she was Mairead Corrigan when she helped lead peace rallies that drew as many as 40,000 people in 1976 and 1977 - is quietly raising a family 20 miles southeast of Belfast. She is married to Jackie Maguire, the widower of her sister Anne. Mairead was galvanized into action when three of Anne's children were killed at the height of the violence in 1976. Anne committed suicide in January 1980.

The woman with whom Mairead shared the prize and the headlines - Betty Williams - now lives in Florida. She is married to electrical engineer Jim Perkins.

It is ironic that the two women, honored for trying to make peace, came to disagree deeply about how it should be pursued. Personality clashes developed as the first triumphs wore off and the struggle settled down to long, hard, backstage work. Betty Williams set up her own separate reconciliation group, and in February 1980 she resigned from the main organization she and Mairead had helped to found: the Community of the Peace People.

Yet the convictions that formed these groups and others are still strongly held. A number of groups remain active, trying to bring people together at the grass roots rather than in the glare of publicity.

Mairead Maguire puts it this way:

''The human family has got to find an alternative to violence and war. We have to find ways to make peace in our own lives. . . .

''To the churches, I say that it isn't enough to pray for reconciliation: Genuine steps must be taken. Churches should support integrated schools, for instance.

''You can't impose solutions from London or Dublin. You have to build up a political consensus between Protestants and Roman Catholics. We need as many platforms for dialogue as possible. . . .''

Some in Belfast, including government officials, dismiss Mrs. Maguire now as a visionary who lacks political power.

Others such as the Rev. John Morrow, leader of the Corrymeela Community, which works to unite Protestants and Catholics, believe she and other peacemakers have helped keep Belfast from becoming another Beirut.

''You have to keep chipping away all the time,'' Mr. Morrow said in his Belfast headquarters. ''Bigger structures of peace cannot grow unless there's more contact at the grass roots. . . . This society still exists because a lot of people have reached out to each other who don't want to give in to violence. . . .''

Mr. Morrow credits the work of Mrs. Maguire and Mrs. Perkins with encouraging many on both sides to be less afraid. ''In the Protestant housing estate of Glencairn residents were encouraged to stand up to their local paramilitary groups and regain control of their area,'' he said.

''A lot of our work is getting rid of the deep-seated fear people have of each other here.''

Also tackling such ''deep-seated fear'' are people like Margaret Wilkinson, for 36 years a Protestant missionary in southern India. Now she is trying to bridge the gap between Catholics and Protestants by living in a residential center called Columbanus. It was founded by the Rev. Michael Hurley.

So far two Protestants and four Catholics share the center. ''I've begun going into day centers for the elderly and into Catholic homes, getting to know people,'' Miss Wilkinson said after attending an annual Protestant-Catholic church service in the Clonard monastery. The buildings are just around the corner from the headquarters of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, on the notorious Falls Road.

At the other end of Belfast, Methodist Hazel Dickson is sharing another residential center with, among others, Roman Catholic Sister Gladys Hayward, for 22 years a missionary and nurse in northern Ghana.

Their experiment is called the Cornerstone Community, after the verses in the New Testament from Ephesians (2:14-22). The center, situated in the volatile Springfield Road area, hopes to provide a neutral zone where families from both sides can meet without fear. ''We try to repair and strengthen family life,'' Sister Hayward says.

Another Belfast woman, standing nearby, nodded. ''I'm a Protestant,'' she said, ''and many of my closest friends are Catholics. We have a weekly Bible study group. It is times like those, and church services like these, that keep me here in Northern Ireland.'

The Peace People Community survives, based in a former Presbyterian manse on the Lisburn road. Steve McBride now edits its biweekly paper, Peace by Peace. The community has a budget of (STR)20,000 ($28,000) a year, much of it donated by the Public Welfare Foundation in Washington.

McBride runs an integrated football league for 12-year-olds. An old Ford van with 100,000 miles on the odometer ferries families of prisoners to and from Belfast's two jails every week. Donated by Austrians, the van is an alternative to IRA and Protestant paramilitary buses. There is no public bus to either jail.

''Generally it isn't violence that we fight in Ulster today,'' Steve McBride says. ''It's apathy and alienation. So many people throw up their hands and say there's nothing more to be done. . . .''

As for Mairead Corrigan Maguire, to the outside world she remains the best-known symbol of all the peacemakers still living here.

Not everyone approves of her. Some Catholics think she became swell-headed when she received the Nobel prize (which also provided her and Mrs. Williams with (STR)38,000 each). The Provisional wing of the outlawed IRA organized hostile demonstrations as her rallies grew in 1976. Some Protestants disliked the idea of a Roman Catholic leading the North's most famous peace group.

Mrs. Maguire herself prefers not to speak about her break with Betty Williams. Politely, she steers the conversation into other channels.

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