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Students end sit-in protest ... but vow that battle to save common room will continue

By Rebecca Black

A sit-in protest at the University of Ulster in Coleraine has ended amid confusion after 18 days.

The remaining four members of Occupy Coleraine left the senior common room yesterday evening to cheers from supporters.

They were protesting at the university's plan to close the facility – an academic social club – to make way for a multi-million pound renovation plan for the campus.

Last night Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry issued a statement welcoming that "a resolution to the situation at the University of Ulster in Coleraine had been agreed".

But the protesters said they left because they had been served with an eviction notice by the university, and were still clearly aggrieved at the situation.

The university shut off the electricity and water supply to the senior common room on Wednesday morning.

It also sealed up the toilets and blocked off two of the emergency exits.

Security personnel were also installed and prevented any protesters who left from returning to the room.

Protest leader Chloe Gault previously vowed they would stay throughout Christmas unless the university reversed its decision, or relocate the senior common room within the campus. Yesterday, the number of protesters had fallen from six on Wednesday to four, who all left the premises at 6.30pm.

Occupy Coleraine issued a statement, in which it said it was extremely proud of those who took part in the protest, "especially the few who coped without water, heat or electricity over the last 36 hours".

It explained its reason for ending the protest as trying to stay within the law. "In keeping with our belief in legal protest, Occupy Coleraine have no option but to end this stand-off," the group said.

The senior common room committee said it planned to pursue further action through university regulations.

A senior High Court judge yesterday confirmed that he will hold a hearing into a dispute between the University of Ulster and protesters.

Mr Justice Weatherup is currently The Visitor at the University of Ulster.

The Visitor is an old university tradition, which acts as a final court of appeal during disputes.

A spokesman for the Lord Chief Justice's office said that the hearing is expected to take place in January at the Coleraine campus.

It is not known how the vacating of the senior common room by the students will impact upon this.

BACKGROUND

Universities can have a Board of Visitors who act as a final court of appeal in disputes. The Visitor is usually from a legal background and is appointed by the Queen on the advice of her Privy Council. The current Visitor at the University of Ulster is Mr Justice Weatherup, while Queen's University has a Board of Visitors chaired by Sir Malachy Higgins. They are usually called on for minor issues such as staff disputes or academic appeals. Northern Ireland is the last region of the UK where universities still have Visitors. They are not remunerated or given expenses.

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