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How the planners and students brought Holyland to its knees

By Lindy McDowell

The police couldn't sort it and neither could the politicians. Just about everything was tried - warden patrols, appeals and disciplinary action. But nothing it seems could stop the student rape of Belfast's Holyland. Or their traditional riot on St Patrick's Day.

This year, however, we're told it may all be completely different. For this year the big guns have finally been unleashed on the student masses.

Bring on - the mammies ...

A report suggests that in recent years many students have been shunning Holyland housing because their worried parents no longer want them living in Belfast's Anti-social Central.

Mothers and fathers do not want their offspring running the risk of getting caught up in the infamous thuggery which has resulted in a number of students being arrested, taken to court or disciplined by the universities.

In fairness there must also be a few parents out there who recoil too at the notion of their offspring being party to inflicting misery on local residents - the sort of misery about which we're now all too familiar from media reports.

The result? A report suggests almost a fifth of student houses in the Holyland area lies empty.

Driving through the historic Holyland (and I wonder does anyone from up around Stormont ever bother to take a look?) the decline of what was once regarded as a unique and precious part of the city is striking.

Litter, graffiti and rubbish-strewn gardens mark student territory. There's an old fridge dumped alongside a threadbare shrub still defiantly holding its head up outside one peeling property. It all has an air of grim, grimy neglect. Windows sport dingy makeshift curtains or are festooned with flyers or printed cards advising there's a room free in a 'quiet house'. Tellingly 'quiet house' is now a major selling point.

Back in our student days my friend Dympna and I shared a flat in this street (we didn't have apartments then.) To say the accommodation was basic would be an understatement. But we were in heaven. And, while I doubt we would have qualified as neighbours of the year, we did respect the long-term residents living in the street. The young families. The elderly people living alone.

Students and residents co-existed quite happily in the area for decades. And family homes there were sought after.

Several years ago, friends of mine, a young couple, bought a two up-two down terrace in Carmel Street. It was an immaculate gem. Polished real wood floors, original fittings lovingly restored - an estate agent's dream.

Only a few years later, after they'd moved, the little terrace was on the market as a house of multiple occupancy - offered with 'accommodation for six'. The landlords and the lax planning laws which allowed them to rake in massive profits whatever the cost to local residents are as much to blame for the blight as anyone. For it's undeniable the dense concentration of students is a major part of the problem.

If landlords are being stung now by changing economic realities it's hard to feel sorry for them. But the pampered student army has to accept responsibility for its actions too.

The face of the place they live in may be gradually changing again. And it would be so good to see a concerted effort by city authorities to restore this historic little area.

First though, comes the annual acid test of St Paddy's Day.

Today we'll find out if there truly are any signs that the long, grim siege of the Holyland is finally coming to an end.

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