Many communities across the globe celebrated St Patrick’s Day in a joyous, colourful and peaceful manner. In an area just 22 miles from St Patrick’s final resting place, it was, unfortunately, a very different story.
That area is known as the Holy Land district of Belfast and it is home to over 6,000 students from Belfast’s five higher education institutions (Belfast Metropolitan College, Queen’s University Belfast, St Mary’s Teacher Training College, Stranmillis University College and the University of Ulster — UU).
To provide an alternative to alcohol and the pub for these students on St Patrick’s Day, both Queen’s and the University of Ulster have invested heavily in terms of time and resources to create a community-based, student-led St Patrick’s Day Festival.
For four years now, thousands of students have enjoyed the activities and this year was no different.
This year alone saw 500 students and residents participate in the sporting part of the festival this week. Many more returned home to celebrate the day with their families.
But as we know, a minority of students, and I stress it was a minority, upset their neighbours and fellow students with their anti-social behaviour.
I know fellow students have been upset because many worked alongside the police and Community Wardens to try and calm the situation. I know, because by yesterday afternoon my colleague Ciarnan Helferty, President of the Students’ Union had received over 200 emails from students expressing their disgust at the actions of a few.
It is a minority that must be dealt with. And I know for a fact it is a minority that will be dealt with.
They will be dealt with, in the case of Queen’s, under an Off-Campus Disciplinary Procedure. Queen’s, along with UU, is one of only three universities in the UK to have a disciplinary procedure that deals with incidents that happen off-campus. Out of over 120 universities in the UK, I think this alone highlights how seriously the university takes its responsibility to the community.
Under the procedure students can be fined up to £500, suspended or expelled. Once fined, a student cannot graduate unless they pay their fine. They are also refused access to their student account and library facilities.
There has been criticism in the media that Queen’s has not expelled anyone yet for anti-social behaviour and therefore the disciplinary procedure is a ‘toothless wonder’. I would like to point out that of those who are made to attend a disciplinary hearing, (less than 1% of the student population of Queen’s), the reoffending rate is minimal.
So the code does work and will continue to work.
So what happened on St Patrick’s Day then? It’s quite simple. Alcohol.
Queen’s partners the PSNI, Belfast City Council and UU have all acknowledged that Tuesday’s events were out of the ordinary and fuelled by drink.
My colleagues in the Students’ Union have been working hard to drum the message home to students that they must respect their neighbours and drink responsibly. It is a campaign that has worked. Before St Patrick’s Day complaints had dropped by 39% from October to the end of February compared to the same period last year.
Therefore, I am left with no other choice than to agree that alcohol was the key factor.
We would also support calls to introduce ‘alcohol disorder zones’ on certain days in the Holy Land area. An ‘alcohol disorder zone’ would mean students and their friends could not sit out the front of their houses and drink, or drink in the street. It would immediately defuse the potential for disorder.
Such measures might seem draconian but I can see no other option when it comes to tackling this problem head on.
The concentration of students in this area has increased in recent years as a result of the government’s efforts to encourage more students to enter higher education. This, coupled with the pressure of fees, has also led to more students being forced to share rooms. It is a problem that looks set to stay.
Queen’s has worked hard to build its reputation as a world-class university. I and thousands of fellow students have worked hard for our degrees. We will not allow our qualifications to be associated with the pathetic behaviour of a minority of students.
My fellow colleagues and I utterly condemn the behaviour that took place in the Holy Land area.
We are disgusted by what happened and are already putting considerable effort into looking at how we can avoid this happening again. But we cannot deal with this alone — the Executive, police, council and others must work with the universities and student leaders to find a lasting solution.
We want our St Patrick’s Day back.