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West Belfast woman honoured with 'Peacemaker of the Year' award

Mary Montague pictured at work with her International peace award. Picture Hugh Russell
Gail Bell

A WEST Belfast grandmother who has worked quietly in front line peace-building for more than 40 years has been awarded for her efforts at a international event in Bucharest.

Mary Montague (63) was recently presented with the Peacemaker of the Year award at the annual congress of MBB (Mediation Beyond Borders) in the Romanian capital.

A founder member of Women Waging Peace global network and former mediator with Quaker Cottage and the Corrymeela Community, she has also delivered reconciliation programmes in other countries experiencing conflict including the Balkans, Afghanistan and Sudan.

Although now working part-time with the Tides Training mediation consultancy on the Antrim Road which she founded, she admits she is never truly switched off.

Last week she escorted foreign visitors from the Special European Programme for Peacebuilding around the loyalist protest camp at Twaddell Avenue.

Mary believes these types of "quiet conversations" - with ordinary people living in Belfast's interface areas - go a long way to bringing real and lasting change in Northern Ireland.

Reflecting on her award, she said she felt "really humbled".

"Sometimes it is frustrating that the work we do on the ground, building relationships between divided communities, is not carried up to political level where it can then inform policy," she said. "I talk to politicians, but it is the quiet conversations which go on at community level that could really make a difference."

Mary started out on her peace path in 1975 after witnessing tragedy after tragedy in her own community, St Agnes' Parish in Andersonstown, where she and husband Paddy brought up their two children - and extended foster family - amid the raging troubles going on outside their front door.

"My community lost people on regular basis at that time," she said. "I lost family and friends and my uncle was interned for 21 months. Everyone was angry, including myself. I think we all have the capacity for violence when we feel under attack and I decided I wanted something better for my children."

But taking up reconciliation work with prisoners and ex-combatants came at the price of her own peace and Mary was issued with a death threat. She lived in its shadow for four years and told no-one.

"I didn't let it deter my work," she said, "not because I'm brave and wonderful, but because I became aware of a great groundswell of support from others who felt the same."

A steadfast faith - "I pray all the time" - has helped keep her on track, as has the experience of fostering 40 children over 20 years.

"When you have fostered Catholic and Protestant adolescents together in Andersonstown during the worst of the Troubles, you learn a little about being a mediator," she added.

"I found mediation skills inside the home were vital too."

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