Belfast brought to a standstill as fees protest turns ugly
Students and police clashed in Belfast as the city centre was paralysed by young people protesting against the Government’s hike in university fees.
The demonstration involving hundreds of mostly secondary school students started out peacefully yesterday afternoon — but by early evening the mood of the crowd, which swelled as youngsters finished school for the day, turned angry.
As tempers rose, some staged a sit-down protest on the roads around City Hall, which led to clashes with police.
Eight arrests were made and three police officers sustained injuries when a small number of protesters tried to fight police attempts to remove them.
The students, many of whom got permission from their schools to attend the demonstration, arrived in the city centre around 1pm. By 4pm Donegall Square North was blocked by the placard-waving and chanting young people.
The mood of the protest changed at around 4.30pm when dozens of PSNI officers approached the crowd to forcibly remove the students from the street.
Most of the crowd was pushed back onto the pavements but around 20 uniform-wearing students sat down and refused to move from the ground.
Linking arms, they sat on until around 5pm when veteran political activist Eamonn McCann persuaded them to shift.
Mr McCann told the students: “I think you have given an example and a lead to all people across the North; to teachers, to firefighters and everybody else whose job is under threat.”
He said he hoped the activism was contagious and described seeing some police heavy handedness.
“I think we have got to be prepared for that fact that if everyone is serious about protesting against these cuts there are simply going to be confrontations like this. It is absolutely unavoidable; we can’t allow it to intimidate us off the streets.”
Yesterday’s Westminster vote does not directly affect students studying here, but will impact on those travelling to English universities.
The demonstration was organised largely through social networking sites and brought out young people now fearful that the Government will cut other benefits for poorer pupils, such as the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA).
One of the protest organisers, A Level student Ryan Burnes, said: “We are here to protest as one group. We are here to show our anger at the scrapping of the EMA and the increase in university fees.
“I want to go to university to become a youth worker. How am I supposed to do that if I can’t pay for university? We have the guts to get out here and speak our minds and the police are running around here trying to pound kids into the ground. This is our world and if we don’t shape it the way we want it, someone else will.”
Belfast Metropolitan College student Conal Carter said he received a bloody nose when the police moved in. He said: “The police punched me in the face. It wasn’t an accident, but deliberate.
“I am here to support the need for EMA. Without it I couldn’t afford to go to college.”
Prospective law student, St Louise’s pupil Mairead Donaghy, said she will have to rethink her career options if the tuition rise is imposed in Northern Ireland. “I am here today because it’s a disgrace that Nick Clegg went back on what he said he would do. If the fees here go up to £9,000, I won’t be going to university.”
Dominican College student Georgia Vehan-Doyle said: “Education is so important. Where will I go without a degree? I want to study politics and this has made me want to study it even more to prevent it from happening in the future.”
Linking arms with her was De Le Salle pupil Frances Brown who said she couldn’t afford to go to university if the fees tripled, adding “our teachers support us being here today.”