Belfast Telegraph

Police powerless to act as Belfast's Holylands residents beseiged by army of rowdy, under age drinkers on St Patrick's Day

By Ivan Little

Children as young as 15 were drinking openly on the streets of Belfast's so-called Holylands yesterday as the morning after the Battle of Agincourt Avenue threatened to erupt into similar violence on St Patrick's Day.

Hundreds of youngsters of school age flooded into the warren of side streets off the Ormeau Road to consume carry-outs under the noses of police who had been attacked during a riot in the same area along with residents' homes and cars just hours earlier.

Police sources said social media was being used to hype up the situation and lure more young people into the area where things were looking so volatile at one point yesterday afternoon that the PSNI advised volunteers from care charities to pull out of the Holylands temporarily because they feared that trouble could explode again at any moment.

During several hours walking around the Holylands yesterday, I lost count of the number of children who were below the legal drinking age but were happily downing cans of beer, cider and bottles of wine.

Read more: Police confirmed eleven arrests were made in the city centre and Holylands area.

Critics said the police should have taken decisive action, but the reality was that so many young people were drinking that it would have taken hundreds of police officers to stop them.

What was also patently clear was that university students who have been blamed for causing trouble in the area in the past weren't the only ones shaming the shamrock, as one observer put it.

Thousands of people were on the streets, maybe five times the number I witnessed in the same area last year.

"We were told that this is the place to come for the craic," said one fifth year pupil of a prestigious west-Belfast grammar school. "It's mental, but we're only having fun."

Long-term residents of the Holylands didn't see it that way. Many were besieged in their homes while others had moved out for St Patrick's Day.

One eastern European man who lives just off Agincourt Avenue told me: "My family didn't sleep at all on Wednesday night. The noise was deafening and the damage that was caused was disgraceful. I thought St Patrick's Day was supposed to be a happy occasion."

All around him were reminders - if any were needed - of the destruction from the previous night inflicted by a mob of almost 300 young people. Locals braced themselves for a repeat.

Queues formed outside an off-licence in the area yesterday morning before it opened and scores of people were pushing and shoving to get in through the doors several hours later.

For one young man, his hangover hadn't even had time to kick in as he cavorted naked through the streets with only a tricolour to cover his manhood.

In the SOS bus, which was parked near Queen's University to help anyone who needed treatment for the effects of drink, one man was completely comatose yesterday. Just after 2pm.

He had apparently been drinking non-stop for 24 hours and other people had already been rushed to hospital with even worse problems.

Thirty volunteers were standing by ready to go to the aid of other intoxicated revellers yesterday. Nearby, police officers in a fleet of Land Rovers were on high alert too.

At the end of Palestine Street, which was thronged with hundreds of young people drinking and dancing to blaring music, eight police officers stood nervously watching proceedings.

A Land Rover equipped with CCTV cameras on its roof had just pulled out of the district.

A number of ambulances were called to the Holylands throughout the afternoon as fights broke out among the huge crowds and police hustled several people away to waiting vehicles.

Monitors from Queen's University and the Ulster University looked increasingly anxious as the afternoon wore on and as the mood among the drinkers turned more menacing with pro-IRA chants ringing out.

On Agincourt Avenue, a Sinn Fein banner was unfurled outside a house and a group of young women started to shout Brits Out slogans, failing to recognise the irony that St Patrick, the man they were supposedly there to celebrate, was born across the water.

Some commentators have denied claims that most of the Holylands revellers traditionally come from the nationalist community but it has to be said that among the thousands of Irish sports tops on show yesterday I didn't see one Northern Ireland jersey.

Several youths who witnessed Wednesday night's disturbances - but swore they didn't take part in them - claimed the PSNI had over-reacted by sending in officers in riot gear along with dogs to "deal with parties which spilled out onto the streets".

But the man in charge of the PSNI operation, Chief Superintendent Chris Noble, who was liaising with volunteers in the SOS bus yesterday afternoon, rejected the allegations out of hand.

"The last thing we want to do is to send in officers with protective equipment because that is what it is - to keep them safe because things are being thrown at them and other people's property," he said.

"The behaviour of a minority of the people in the Holylands in the early hours was totally unacceptable.

"Three people were arrested and they, and others we will deal with later, have changed their lives by their drinking and their behaviour afterwards which will have consequences for their education and their future employment."

Chief Supt Noble admitted that his concerns about a re-run of the violence yesterday had been heightened by the spring sunshine which brought more and more people onto the streets with more and more drinks.

"The core factor in all this is the consumption of alcohol by people who drink too much and don't take responsibility for their actions," he added.

At the SOS bus, the charity's chief executive, Joe Hyland, said they'd been taken by surprise by Wednesday's trouble, which was why they weren't on duty.

He added: "We aren't here to judge anyone. The only thing we worry about is the welfare of the young people who are drinking. We have a medic here to assess them and if they're alright we take them home."

Back on Agincourt Avenue, a woman and her family from Magherafelt were unwittingly caught up in the St Patrick's Day madness.

"This is really scary," she said.

"We came up to Belfast to go to the zoo which was lovely and peaceful and we went to an Asian supermarket here but we never imagined there would be crazy scenes like this. I just want to get out and get home. This isn't what St Patrick's Day should be all about."

Her husband added: "I can't believe what I've just seen. One bloke just smashed two bottles of beer together above his head to let the lager run down all over him but he seemed to forget that there would be glass too."

One of the saddest spectacles in the Holylands yesterday was the sight of a young inebriated woman from west Belfast who wept as she asked me for help in finding her mobile phone which had just been stolen.

She borrowed my phone to ring her parents to beg them to come and collect her.

"I didn't think it would be like this," she sobbed.

Ray Farley of the Belfast Holyland Regeneration Association said he wasn't surprised.

In a statement, Queen's University condemned the violence saying that the majority of their students always celebrated St Patrick's Day peacefully.

An Ulster University spokesman said they too were disappointed with what had happened.

Privately, there were admissions that the procedures for disciplining students who were found to have misbehaved in the past needed to be revisited and revised.

But the fear is that the ever-growing attraction of St Patrick's Day in the Holylands to out-of-town youngsters is becoming an unstoppable force.

One woman who lives in the area said: "We have bus-loads of people coming up here for the day armed with their carry-outs and some youngsters from further afield, including the south, are staying with their friends in Belfast to make a holiday out of our hell in the Holylands."

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