A Peace Builder in Northern Ireland

by Myra Saturen
March 25, 2014

Tony MacaulayTo 12-year-old Tony Macaulay, Belfast, Northern Ireland, resembled the newspapers he sold as a newsboy in the mid-1970s.  The newspapers were black and white.  Northern Ireland could also be characterized by two contrasting colors, with orange and green symbolizing the religious and ethnic divisions in Northern Ireland that came to a head during "The Troubles," from the 1960s until the peace agreement of 1998.     

Macaulay, a Northern Irish peace builder who wrote Paperboy and its sequel, Breadboy, lived through "The Troubles," a period of deadly violence.  He spoke at Northampton Community College (NCC) on March 25. 

Raised in Belfast, Macaulay came from a Protestant family.  He described a society in which Protestants and Catholics lived and largely continue to live, separate lives.  During his childhood, his only ventures into an Irish neighborhood occurred when his mother took him for haircuts at a large barber shop in a Catholic neighborhood. 

Even today, life in Northern Ireland is partitioned between Protestant and Catholic, he explained.  Members of the two religions and ethnicities (Scottish and Irish) attend different schools, where they study different histories, and play different sports.  They even live in areas divided by walls called "peace walls."  The country abounds in gates-wooden, brick, wire, concrete, hedges.  Macaulay read from his book Paperboy, in which he humorously describes the various difficulties he encountered getting over each kind of barrier. 

Noting that tensions go back hundreds of years, Macaulay described the partition of Ireland in 1921.  While the eastern and southern regions decided to remain part of the British Empire, the north became independent in 1922, leaving that country with a population 60% Protestant and 40%, Catholic.  The government consisted mostly of Protestants.  In the 1960s, a civil rights movement by Catholics emerged.  The Irish Republican Army (IRA) attempted to achieve independence through violence, the British armed forces were dispatched to Northern Ireland, and Protestants formed paramilitaries. More than 3,500 people were killed. 

In the midst of the mayhem, Macaulay lived what he described as a happy childhood.  Nevertheless, he questioned the violence and division occurring around him and held a vast curiosity about the Catholics who lived on the other side of the wall.  "I thought it was strange that the places that had peace walls were actually the least peaceful, while the neighborhoods that had none were the most peaceful."

A Star Wars fan, Macaulay longed to be a Jedi, who could cross into parallel universes, such as that between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.  He wondered at the barber's floor, where "Catholic and Protestant hair was brushed into great ecumenical rolls in the same corner." 

Although his books are written from a child's perspective, Macaulay has devoted his adulthood, 25 years, to working to build peace and reconciliation at home and abroad.  He partners with  youth and community groups to break down barriers of mistrust, hatred and division.  Although he sees some progress in attitudes of the younger generation, he says that there is still a long way to go.  He believes that the political process in Northern Ireland, the lack of a reconciliation plan and popular indifference sustain division.  "I would like to see integration," he says.   

Macaulay's talk, which included readings from his books, was sponsored by the humanities and social sciences division, the political science department, the communications department, the political science club, and the Forum on Peace, Justice & Conflict Resolution. 

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