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Queen’s University Belfast's 'softly approach' to St Patrick's Day blasted by University of Ulster

By Lesley-Annd McKeown

A row has erupted between Northern Ireland’s two main universities over how to stop student riots engulfing the Holylands area of Belfast on St Patrick’s Day.

The University of Ulster has accused Queen’s University of encouraging a “four-day party” by giving its students two extra days off to mark March 17 this year.

But Queen’s has hit back saying the UU alternative approach of warning trouble makers they will be expelled “will be extremely hard to execute”.

The deep disagreement has emerged as the universities attempt to reduce the potential for street disorder on St Patrick’s Day which falls on a Saturday this year, raising fears that the long-running problems will escalate.

The universities have adopted radically different tactics in their efforts to prevent any repeat of the mayhem that has marred March 17 celebrations in the Holylands area over the past three years. Alcohol-fuelled street disorder has plagued the area for years but St Patrick’s Day 2009 saw a serious deterioration in anti-social behaviour when riots erupted and 33 people were arrested.

Last St Patrick’s Day, around 14 people were detained by the PSNI for a variety of offences including possession of drugs, disorderly behaviour, criminal damage, excess alcohol and assault.

Queen’s, which traditionally takes the public St Patrick’s Day holiday, is encouraging its students to “go home” and has given them an extended weekend break with Friday, March 16 designated as a reading day and Monday, March 19 as a day off.

However, UU is staying open on both days. UU chiefs — who have posted video messages from its pro-vice-chancellor, the PSNI and residents warning students against getting involved in anti-social activities — are also warning that roll calls will be taken and students who fail to turn up could face disciplinary action.

UU chiefs have accused QUB of adopting a “laissez-faire” approach that could “facilitate a four-day party.”

“We do not want to be seen to facilitate a prolonged party,” said Una Calvert, UU’s community relations officer. “Queen’s have decided to give its students a reading day in the hope that they will go home but what we have found is that reading days do not work — students use them as a holiday.

“Given the events of 2009 which are seen as a ‘game changer’, we believe that giving students an extra day on either side of St Patrick’s Day may only prolong the party. But the reality is that nobody knows what is going to happen on the day. We also have four campuses to think of and we cannot have one rule for students in Belfast and another for those in Coleraine or Magee.”

Meanwhile, QUB said it acted on wishes of beleaguered Holylands residents and expressed disappointment that the UU had not followed suit.

A spokesman said: “We have a smaller number of students in the Holylands area and we are encouraging them to go home.

“The UU decision to potentially expel troublemakers on the day will be extremely hard to execute.

“It is a risk but we are hoping that QUB students will take the opportunity to have a long weekend out of Belfast. We do not anticipate that the Thursday will be the start of a long weekend of partying right through to the Sunday. We believe we are right to tell students to go home and the anecdotal evidence shows that they do go home at the weekends.”

Around 60% of the students living in the Holylands attend the University of Ulster compared to around 28% who go to Queen’s.

To date, no student has been expelled from university because of anti-social behaviour associated with St Patrick’s Day. However, it is understood a number have left voluntarily before being formally disciplined.

Last year, 42 complaints were reported to both universities about student behaviour around St Patrick’s Day. Of those, 19 complaints involved students from QUB and as a result 30 students received formal warnings while seven were fined. The UU said it did not collate information specifically related to St Patrick’s Day but said that 111 students had been reprimanded during 2010/11 — 41 of whom were fined and given a written reprimand.

Ray Farley, who represents residents in the Holylands, said they favoured the QUB approach. “In fact, we would have liked them to give them the whole week off to encourage students to leave the area,” he said.

Mr Farley has called on the Justice Minister David Ford to introduce new legislation to make it illegal for students to drink in the front gardens of their homes.

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