Water and electricity cut off... but are university chiefs going too far to end students' sit-in?University of Ulster students involved in the sit-in at the senior common room, and (below) the stairs blocked from the common room by a wooden board
THE University of Ulster has been slammed as "draconian" after cutting off electricity, water and toilet facilities to students occupying part of the Coleraine campus.
They also blocked two fire exits yesterday morning in a desperate attempt to force the protesters out on the 17th day of their sit-in at the senior common room.
The Occupy Coleraine group set up camp on Monday, December 2 after it emerged the common room was to be closed.
The University of Ulster said the space would be turned into meeting rooms and teaching facilities. It is the last university senior common room in Northern Ireland, after the equivalent spaces at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown and Queen's were closed around 10 years ago.
The common room was only open to students and academics for an annual membership fee.
Last week there were up to 160 people taking part in the sit-in, but yesterday that had fallen to six.
Any protesters who left were not allowed to return by security personnel installed by the university. A University of Ulster worker, who preferred not to be named, claimed that both sides in the dispute had been waiting to hear advice from an independent mediator known as 'The Visitor'.
Yesterday the university appeared to have lost patience and moved in.
The worker said the actions yesterday had shocked even those unsympathetic to the protesters, describing them as "draconian".
Student Anna Loane told the Belfast Telegraph – amid the background sound of drilling – that they were woken at 7.30am yesterday by workmen changing the locks.
"The locks have been changed, the security men have been told that cannot let anyone return to the room after leaving or their jobs will be on the line," she said.
"The water was switched off this morning, the electricity was turned off at 10.20am, but there is still an emergency light."
Ms Loane said she feared what might happen if there was a fire as she is disabled.
"Because the electricity is off, there is no lift," she said.
Final year student Chloe Gault, who is leading the protest, said they would call it off if the university agreed to relocate the senior common room to another part of the campus or reversed the decision to close it. But the protesters are prepared to spend Christmas in the room.
A UU spokesman said: "The university is disappointed that a small number of people – fewer than 10 – are trying to prevent improvements to facilities at our Coleraine campus."
The senior common room at the University of Ulster at Coleraine has been used by students and academics for live music events, poetry readings, talks, events and even ecumenical services. Senior common rooms are an old tradition at universities, probably best described as social clubs which charged for membership. The general public were not permitted into them, unless as a member's guest. The Coleraine senior common room is the last to survive in Northern Ireland. Run by a committee, it cost £10 a year for part-time staff and postgraduate students and £30 a year for full-time staff.
Dwindling band of protesters with a common room cause
By Jack Brennan
It was like a hostage negotiation scene from a Hollywood movie. But rather than a tense film set, it was the University of Ulster in Coleraine where students are protesting at the closure of their common room by staging a sit-in which entered its 18th day today.
On approaching the main entrance of the campus building, all seemed normal yesterday.
But lurking at the end of a corridor, not far from the main entrance, it was clear something unusual was taking place.
Two security guards in high-visibility jackets manned the entrance to the room where the six student protesters sat inside.
The only way to talk to them is to brave the cold and go outside into a courtyard area, where the protesters can speak through a window which opens no more than four inches.
As they spoke through the gap, the sound of electric saws cutting through plywood to seal an entrance to the room could be heard across the university's vast grounds.
Even with Christmas around the corner the protesters say they are prepared to stay well beyond the festive period.
Calum Tomlinson, who left the protest in order to take some of his fellow protesters to work and was subsequently not allowed back in, said that the university was doing everything it could to try and evict them.
He said: "They've cut off the electricity, they've cut off water, they're demolishing the toilets, they're changing the locks on the doors, they're doing everything they can to get us out.
"There's six in there at the minute, there were many more but they can't get back in, so numbers are dropping."
Asked what their parents think of the protest, Calum said: "A lot are behind us, but mine just want me back for Christmas."