THE SUMMER of 1976 was a grim one in a grim year, even by the standards of Northern Ireland. As the Government announced it was dispatching a further 200 troops there due to the upsurge in violence, the summer unfolded in a vicious series of tit-for-tat sectarian killings while, south of the border, on 21 July, Britain's ambassador to Ireland, Christopher Ewart Biggs, was killed, along with his secretary, by a landmine in Dublin.
Then, on 10 August, a young Provisional IRA driver, Danny Lennon, was shot dead by a pursuing British Army patrol as he sped down Finaghy Road North in Belfast. Out of control, the car ploughed into Anne Maguire and her children. Eight-and-a-half-year-old Joanne, who was cycling alongside, and her six-week-old brother, Andrew, in his pram, were killed instantly; their brother, John, just two-and-a-half, died in hospital the following day.
It fell to Anne's sister, Mairead Corrigan, just back from holiday, to accompany her traumatised brother-in-law, Jackie Maguire, for the formal identification of his dead children. Then she did what in hindsight may seem a remarkable thing, or perhaps, under the circumstances, the most natural thing in the world. She went straight to the Ulster Television studios, asked to go on the air, and delivered an impassioned appeal for an end to the violence.
Amid the awfulness of these events, she had no possible inkling that her appeal would help precipitate the movement which became known as the Peace People, never mind earn her the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize. "For myself, it was an emotional reaction to a terrible tragedy, as well as to the ongoing tragedy of nine years of death and violence," she recalls, sitting in her home by the peaceful shores of Stran-gford Lough in County Down. "I didn't at all think it would turn into a mass movement."
Thirty years on from that awful summer - and a year to the day since the IRA announced an end to its armed campaign - Mairead Corrigan Maguire, to give her married name, still sounds faintly surprised at the turn of events which developed, even as the wreckage of car, pram and bicycle were dragged from the twisted railings. Another Andersonstown woman, Betty Williams, who was among the first to arrive on the scene of the tragedy, began knocking on doors and spoke to a local newspaper about the need for the violence to stop, giving her phone number for anyone interested to contact her.
On 13 August, the day of the Maguire children's funeral, Corrigan met Williams for the first time, along with Ciaran McKeown, a journalist and community activist committed to nonviolence. "Betty called a rally for the Saturday," she recalls, "and we realised then that there was this tremendous desire among people to do things differently." That first rally wasn't huge by later standards - perhaps around 1,000 people, she reckons. "But the astounding thing about it was that busloads came over from the [Loyalist] Shankhill into the heart of [Republican] Andersonstown to participate. People came from very troubled areas."
It was McKeown who wrote the organisation's declaration, which concluded: "We reject the use of the bomb and the bullet and all the techniques of violence. We dedicate ourselves to working with our neighbours, near and far, day in and day out, to build that peaceful society in which the tragedies we have known are a bad memory and a continuing warning."
But, as increasingly large crowds from both sides of the sectarian divide started calling for an end to the violence, not everyone took kindly to this apparent intervention of humane common sense. Corrigan, Williams and McKeown received their fair share of threats, hate mail and worse. One campaigner, Brigett McKenna, was shot in the face that September, and Corrigan and Williams narrowly escaped injury when they were attacked by a mob in the Republican Turf Lodge area of Belfast a few weeks later, following the death of a 13-year-old boy hit by a British Army plastic bullet.
During one foray into west Belfast, Corrigan's car was torched. "We went in at a rather emotional time, perhaps unwisely," she laughs wryly, "but in those days we often did unwise things."
They took stick from Republicans for not saying more about the fact that the driver of the car which killed the Maguire children had been shot by the Army. They were vilified, too, by some British left-wing elements, and criticised for failing to support the Republican paramilitary hunger strikers. Corrigan argues that a philosophy of nonviolence and the sanctity of every life meant they could not endorse a fast to the death, and she adds that what was less publicised was the organisation's campaigning for the granting of emergency status to be given to paramilitary prisoners who, following the withdrawal of "special status," were treated as standard criminals. They were accused of accepting government funding - which, stresses Corrigan, has never been the case, right up to the present day, except for grant aid for youth projects.
"We were seen as betraying our communities, no matter what side we came from, but we really were not against one side or another," she insists.
Having grown up in Catholic West Belfast, she knew the dynamics of anger, disillusionment and retaliation which helped swell the ranks of the paramilitaries.
Did she ever fear for her life? "I was never a member of a political party, but I'd worked as a volunteer with a Catholic lay organisation, visiting prisoners interned in Long Kesh. So I had no fear in that community."
She says that receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 alongside Betty Williams proved far more daunting. "The greatest difficulty I had was facing university professors and intellectuals and people like that," she recalls. "That was a greater challenge than living in my community, whose emotions I understood."
While it was she and Williams who became Nobel Laureates, she stresses that, despite being initially called the Women's Peace Movement, it was a mixed organisation from the start, and she regrets that the other co-founder, McKeown, was passed over. "We were like a team, the three of us, in the early days, and we were very, very close. But we were nominated for the prize by a group of German women parliamentarians and they just nominated us two women." The path of peace was not to run smoothly, however, within the movement as without.
In 1980, following disagreements over the spending of funding and what Corrigan describes as a breakdown in trust, Williams and another executive member, Peter McLachlan, left, with Williams subsequently divorcing, re-marrying and moving to Florida, although she has since returned to settle in County Galway, in the Republic of Ireland. Corrigan says, however, that they remain in touch, meeting at gatherings such as the annual World Summit of Nobel laureates, conceived by Mikhail Gorbachev, where the former Guinness secretary from Belfast rubs shoulders with the likes of the Dalai Lama, Bill Clinton and the former First Minister of Northern Ireland, David Trimble. Despite the heady emergence of the Peace People, peace proved distressingly slow in coming to pass - as evinced by the litany of more than 3,500 people killed in what we euphemistically refer to as "The Troubles" between 1969 and 2001.
The organisation, now widely occupied in fields of conflict well beyond Northern Ireland, is sometimes dismissed as having failed to fulfil its initial, widely publicised, promise. Edinburgh-based historian Ian S Wood, whose book Crimes of Loyalty: A History of the UDA was recently published by Edinburgh University Press, frequently came into contact with its members during visits to Northern Ireland.
"I think what they did was remarkable for the time," he says, "but they failed to build a mass movement except very briefly, because they were ahead of the time when they could have really cracked it. They were coming from within a community that was increasingly dominated by the IRA and they came under serious threat from the Provos because they weren't keen to support the hunger strikers. But they did a lot of good in things like their work with young teenagers who had been drawn into paramilitaries, and I don't think that work has been properly quantified yet." In a rare interview five years ago, McKeown, now a political correspondent in Belfast, while decrying some of the mythologising surrounding the Peace People, pointed out, as does Corrigan, that the level of violence in Northern Ireland dropped by some 70 per cent after August 1976 and never returned to its former levels. The sceptical might argue that the downturn might also be attributed to a more sophisticated approach taken by the security forces.
Nevertheless, said McKeown, "I think one might look back at what was launched in 1976 and say that, by the Grace of God, if one might dare such an invocation, a very great deal more than a nine-day emotional wonder happened."
The popular movement which was born from the deaths of three children and a 20-year-old IRA man offered more than a glimpse of hope, yet Corrigan's sister, Anne Maguire, badly injured by the car that killed her children, never recovered and committed suicide in 1980. Corrigan married her widower, Jackie, adopting their three remaining children and had two of their own.
Now 62, she remains honorary president of the Peace People and travels the world as a peace activist and human rights campaigner, working with the Gandhi Movement in India, campaigning on behalf of Mordecai Vanunu, the Israeli "nuclear weapons whistleblower", and for the Burmese democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi.
In 1998 she visited Iraq with the Argentinean Nobel Laureate, Adolfo Prez Esquivel, and to campaign against both the sanctions, and in March 2003 she was arrested, with American peace activists, outside the White House. Betty Williams, too, continues with peace and humanitarian work, having founded the World Centers of Compassion for Children International.
"When I look now at what's happening in Iraq and the Middle East, and the bombing of Lebanon, its just as horrific [as Northern Ireland]," says Corrigan. "You can't solve problems by violence, whether state or paramilitary. In the final analysis, people have to sit down and negotiate and compromise and find a solution."
A year on from the end of the IRA armed campaign, as the Northern Ireland Assembly remains in suspension and a sullen silence surrounds the murder of the Belfast Catholic Robert McCartney (whose sisters mounted a high-profile campaign demanding justice, only to be forced to move from their community, claiming intimidation), how long must it take before such scars and hatreds can be forgotten?
"I think it's going to be generations," she says. "Belfast really has become more deeply polarised than anyone dreamed possible.
She welcomed last July's IRA announcement that "the time for war" was at an end, but she remains far from complacent. "I believe the armed struggle is over, thank God, but I do think that it's important that we try and get our political institutions up and running as quickly as possible.
"The more you leave a vacuum, there can always be another bomb. It only takes one or two to do something and the whole thing could unwind."
She insists, however, that she remains optimistic. "I see young people moving on and that's wonderful. I just wish the political leadership - and I'm thinking particularly of the DUP [Democratic Unionist Party] - would move on and stop holding people prisoners of the past. We need to put all that rhetoric of division behind us."