Ciaran McKeown Dies at 76; Sought Peace in Northern Ireland


Ciaran McKeown, a reporter who abandoned newspaper work to help establish a peace movement that attracted thousands of marchers in the worst days of the so-called Troubles in Northern Ireland, died on Sept. 1 at his home in Belfast. He was 76.

His family confirmed the death in a statement. He had been suffering from cancer.

Mr. McKeown came to prominence in 1976 as a founder of the Peace People, a grass-roots organization that campaigned for an end to violence between militant republicans, mainly Roman Catholic, who were seeking a united Ireland, and police and soldiers defending Northern Ireland’s union with Britain. Protestant paramilitaries also played a part in the bloody conflict, which claimed at least 3,500 lives.

Mr. McKeown, who at the time was working as the Northern Ireland correspondent for the Dublin-based newspaper The Irish Press, was moved by spontaneous protests sparked by the deaths of three young children and a young Irish Republican Army militant on Aug. 10, 1976.

Although hundreds had already died since the Troubles began in 1969, the deaths of the children in West Belfast seemed to many to be particularly pointless and cruel. The Maguire children — Joanne, 8, John, 2, and Andrew, 6 weeks — were killed after a car driven by an I.R.A. member, who had been fatally wounded while being chased by the British Army, went out of control and crashed into them as they were walking with their mother and brother.

A chance meeting in a television studio, where he had come to discuss the ensuing outpouring of grief and anger, introduced Mr. McKeown to the dead children’s aunt, Mairead Corrigan, an office worker, and to Betty Williams, a local peace activist of mixed Catholic and Protestant descent.

Together, they decided to organize a movement. It galvanized tens of thousands of people to march for peace in Northern Ireland and Britain, winning worldwide acclaim and, some believe, contributing to a subsequent easing in the level of violence.

Mr. McKeown gave the Peace People its name. He also wrote the group’s declaration of principles and put together its early campaigns.

“We dedicate ourselves to working with our neighbors, near and far, day in and day out,” the declaration said, “to build that peaceful society in which the tragedies we have known are a bad memory and a continuing warning.”

Yet he was left out of the honors when the Nobel committee awarded the 1977 Peace Prize to Ms. Corrigan and Ms. Williams — perhaps because the Peace People had originally been perceived as a women’s movement.

Their paths gradually diverged thereafter. As the energy behind the Peace People flagged and divisions emerged over funding and leadership, the two Nobel laureates, Ms. Williams and Ms. Maguire, continued to be prominent on the world stage, campaigning on a range of peace and rights issues and serving on various international bodies. Mr. McKeown, who had given up his journalism career to become an activist, retrained as a typesetter.

He later returned to journalism. He was a copy editor and columnist for the News Letter, a Belfast newspaper, in the key period leading up to the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998. Although broadly supportive of the process, he warned, presciently, that its requirement for power sharing between unionist and nationalist blocs could delay true reconciliation.

“The price paid is that Northern Ireland politics, for the foreseeable future, places ethnicity above humanity, and indeed above democracy as normally understood,” he wrote in The Irish Times. “Can you imagine having to register as Asian or Caribbean in Manchester in order to claim your proportionate say in the city council?”

He also worked for The Irish News of Belfast, and as a copy editor and columnist for the Northern Ireland edition of The Daily Mirror, the British tabloid.

Ciaran (KIR-ahn) Joseph McKeown (mack-YONE) was born on Jan. 19, 1943, in Derry to Sean and Mary (Shevlin) McKeown. His father was a school principal.

Mr. McKeown was raised in Belfast and spent a short period preparing for the priesthood before opting instead to attend Queens University, graduating with a degree in philosophy. In 1966 he became the first Roman Catholic elected president of the university’s student council, and he served as president of the all-island Union of Students in Ireland in 1969. As a student leader, he was also active in the 1960s movement for full civil rights for Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority.

Mark Durkan, a former leader of the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party and a former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, said he had recently encountered Mr. McKeown at a commemoration in the Irish president’s residence in Dublin.

“He was talking a lot about the whole spirit of civil rights and the ’60s, and contrasting that with the attitudes now, the malaise that is abroad in global politics,” Mr. Durkan said. “He understood the need for reconciliation more than a lot of people who use that word so lightly now.”

Mr. McKeown’s wife, Marianne (McVeigh) McKeown, whom he married while they were students, died in 2012. His survivors include six daughters, Marianne Best, Rachel Corrigan, Susan Ridder-Patrick, Ruth McKeown, Leah Tumilty and Hannah McCarthy; a son, Simon; 17 grandchildren; and four brothers.

In addition to his activism and his work in journalism, Mr. McKeown was deeply involved in the Belfast theater scene. He served in a number of offices, including executive secretary and chairman, at the city’s renowned Lyric Theatre.

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