Belfast's student heartland was transformed into a scene of drunken mayhem last night after hundreds of St Patrick’s Day revellers descended on the area.
Riot police swarmed into the largely student district close to Queen’s University after trouble flared yesterday afternoon.
Twelve people were arrested after police were pelted with bottles as dozens of house parties spilled on to the street.
At about 3pm, heavily-armoured officers were called to Carmel Street after reports of damage to a car. They had to form a line to force troublemakers back. Land Rovers blocked both sides of the street, which was closed to traffic.
Drunken youths were left roaming around the area, which is known as the Holy Land in keeping with the Middle Eastern names of many of the streets.
The area has been the scene of disturbances on St Patrick's Day in previous years, prompting complaints from local residents and assurances from Northern Ireland’s two main universities that steps would be taken to deal with the problem.
However, this latest outbreak of disturbances has led to renewed calls for firmer action to be taken.
One local man, who did not wish to be named for fear of reprisals, said: “I have been here 40 years and have never seen anything like this. It’s just gone from bad to worse, people were drinking from early morning.”
Another woman said: “It’s like a total war zone. I just don’t know what's happened. It is frightening.”
South Belfast MLA Jimmy Spratt described the scenes as “shameful”.
“Every year St Patrick's Day is used as an excuse to engage in a booze fuelled rampage through the streets of the Holy Land area,” he said.
“It is time the local universities adopted a zero tolerance approach and expel those identified as being involved in this behaviour.”
Raymond Farley, chairman of the local residents’ group, the Belfast Holy Land Regeneration Association, said last night’s events were among the worst he had witnessed.
“The police have done as much as they can, but if you lived here you would want to see these people picked up and prosecuted.”
Alliance Party Assemblywoman Anna Lo said students needed to consider the consequences of their actions. “Students should behave themselves like the grown-ups that they are,” she said.
A University of Ulster spokesman condemned the “wanton public disorder”.
“The shameful actions of a minority of young people in the area created upset and fear on what should have been a pleasant day for families, students and other residents,” he said.
“The PSNI will have the full co-operation of the university authorities in their investigations.
“Both universities had representatives on the ground throughout the day and their presence was appreciated by residents and police. Many students assisted the universities’ representatives and police in attempting to calm the situation.”
A Queen’s University spokesman also condemned the events and said that the university would take steps through its disciplinary procedures to deal with any students caught engaging in anti-social behaviour.
Drink-fuelled day that descended into chaos
By Matthew McCreary
There was nothing holy about the Holy Land last night.
Just a stone’s throw (quite literally) from Queen’s University, the terraced streets of this once staunchly working-class area reverberated to the sounds of broken bottles, thumping music and the howls of drunken students and their hangers-on.
This wasn’t just another drunken night of merry student high-jinks — this had the feel of something altogether more unpredictable.
Groups of wasted lads in rugby tops and leprauchaun hats prowled the streets exchanging ear-splitting drunken roars with one another, girls yelped and squealed as their attentions became overly-amorous, and I witnessed more than a few noisy domestics between girlfriends and boyfriends up the side streets.
I have covered many riots and drunken gatherings in the course of my career, yet last night, in the midst of this mayhem, I actually felt that I might come to harm of some kind — that accidentally bumping into someone or inadvertently making eye contact with a stranger might just result in an unnecessarily violent confrontation.
By far the biggest targets of the night were the PSNI, who showed remarkable restraint in keeping a lid on things as best they could.
At one stage Carmel Street — where the trouble had erupted earlier in the day — was sealed off from end to end by a phalanx of armoured Land Rovers. Riot police, in the full garb and replete with body-length shields, stood guard, turning away incensed young men and mouthy young girls.
Although largely immobile, their presence nevertheless attracted the wrath of many young lads awash with drink and bravado. The hoots and jeers from gangs of semi-naked youths perched on rooftops in Agincourt Avenue turned to outright violence as officers made a gradual withdrawal. On at least two occasions bottles thrown at police vehicles narrowly missed my head.
Not all those behaving badly were students. I am told that many of those raising hell last night were friends down to visit for the day. I saw many others meandering into the area from nearby Lower Ormeau, ‘barrack-busters’ of cheap cider in blue plastic bags by their sides.
The victims in all of this mayhem are the long-suffering residents of the Holy Land. I tried to speak to those living in the area but found people unwilling to talk for fear of reprisal. One elderly man who did agree to speak was infuriated by what he saw as a lack of decisive action by the universities.
“It’s just unacceptable, it has to stop,” he said. “This used to be one of the most sought-after areas of Belfast, but it started changing when the students came in.”
That many of those participating in last night’s drunken mayhem were the future generation of Northern Ireland’s professional class is one of the most worrying prospects of all.