The violence which took place in Belfast’s Holy Land area on St Patrick’s Day was inexcusable. Many, if not the majority, of those involved in attacks on police and destruction of property including damage to vehicles, were students.
They are young people of potential, not the sort of disadvantaged youths who would normally be regarded as prone to taking out their anger on society.
Whereas in Lurgan the St Patrick’s Day parade had to be cancelled because of politically motivated rioting, in Belfast the festivities were marred by simple drunkenness and loutish behaviour.
The Holy Land area has a notorious reputation for bad behaviour by students. It is an area where thousands of students come to live during their time at the province’s two universities.
The freedom of being away from home for the first time; having money and time to spend and the availability of cheap alcohol is a heady cocktail, too rich for some to handle and they inevitably end up in conflict with either their neighbours or the law. Normally the disruption is very localised and involves relatively few young people.
But on St Patrick’s Day there are thousands of students in the local bars and many more young people also flock to the area. This was not the first time the result had been violence, but it was one of the worst examples.
Meanwhile, Sir Reg Empey, the Employment and Learning Minister, wants to hold a conference of students, residents, community leaders, police and politicians to hammer out a solution to the problems of the Holy Land and to prevent a repeat of this week’s disgraceful scenes.
The difficulty is that the student population is transient, with new arrivals every year seemingly unaware of their civic responsibilities.
Agreements reached with the current generation of students will have no bearing on how next year’s freshers will behave.
Inevitably there have been calls for the universities to do more to curb the behaviour of their students. Firstly, it has to be recognised that these students are adults and solely responsible for their own behaviour.
Secondly, the universities have worked closely with local residents, the police and the city council as well as their own students unions to prevent student high jinks escalating into something more serious, and yet the problems continue. Community safety wardens are a common sight in the area, helping to police the area in a non-contentious way.
Thirdly, the universities do take disciplinary action against students found guilty of misbehaviour.
The ultimate sanction available to the universities is expulsion.
That should be applied to those found guilty of attacking police, residents or destroying property. It would also send out a clear message to other students that the universities will not sanction any ill behaviour by their students.
However, the greatest punishment of all to students brought before the courts and convicted is that their future careers may well be jeopardised because of a few hours of drunken loutishness.
If that is not a sobering thought for many of those students today, then they really are beyond the reach of logic.