Peter Donnelly, Editor
With notable exceptions, St. Patrick’s Day 2021 was a suprisingly quieter affair in the student areas of Belfast, unlike previous years.
March 2021 marked one year since the onset of the Coronavirus lockdown across the UK. 2021 was also the second year running where St. Patrick’s Day events were officially cancelled worldwide. Since last St. Patrick’s Day the deadly grip of the Coronavirus has laid bare its effects for all to see, with the World Health Organisation reporting that over 2.69 million people have succumbed to the disease.
The University areas of South Belfast have been notorious for anti-social behaviour in previous St. Patrick’s Days, yet this year was, much to the relief of local residents and authorities, a relatively low key affair.
A taskforce consisting of the Police, Belfast City Council, representatives of Queen’s University and Ulster University and local residents groups was formed, in the weeks preceding St. Patrick’s Day, to ensure young people within the student areas were observing the Coronavirus lockdown and accompanying Coronavirus Health Protection Regulations.
Although the rate of Coronavirus infection has significantly decreased within recent weeks, in advance of St. Patrick’s Day, Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride ordered people, who were thinking of holding gatherings, to “wise up.”
On St. Patrick’s Day morning local public representatives including the MP for Belfast South, Claire Hanna and Paula Bradshaw MLA were on the ground engaging with Belfast City Council Enforcement and PSNI officers. A significant policing operation had been put in place in the days immediately preceding St. Patrick’s Day, with extra officers being drafted into the South Belfast area to participate in the multi-agency effort.
Additional police officers were also on patrol across Northern Ireland beauty spots where concerns about over-crowding had been raised, by organisations such as The National Trust.
Students who were interviewed by the media expressed their frustration with, what they perceived to be, the authorities’ heavy handed approach to enforcing the Covid-19 Regulations. One young woman said she felt that the concentration of police officers in the student areas of Belfast was excessive given other notable breaches of Coronavirus regulations where there was little enforcement action taken.
The proactice approach by the Police and Belfast City Council officials was welcomed by local politicians. SDLP Belfast City Councillor Gary McKeown said that the multi-agency partnership had led to a “generally quieter” situation in the Holyland during the St. Patrick’s Day period.
Off-licences within student areas were operating on a reduced timetable, over the St. Patrick’s week. Some off-licences placed security on the entrances to their premises.
A long-time resident of the Holyland told Belfast Live that despite a significant police presence he would be be moving out of the district over the St. Patrick’s Day period, saying, “The last 12 months I have hardly stayed in my flat because of the noise, the parties and the disruption.” The resident has lived in the area for 13 years and said despite the advent of the pandemic there was little reduction in noise, “It’s just the constant noise at night – it’s certain houses, the same houses every year – you follow up and nothing is getting done.”
This resident’s concerns are representative of the views of many local non-student residents living within the Holyland area. For many years residents have pushed for public authorities and the universities to ensure that a permanent and effective action plan and strategy could be implemented to ensure anti-social behaviour ceases to continue.
In 2009, the situation in the area deteriorated from significant anti-social behaviour to a full-scale riot as many intoxicated St. Patrick’s Day revellers attacked the Police and caused significant damage to the surrounding area. In the years of 2016 and 2017, the behaviour in the Holylands was described as particularly bad.
A former resident of the area had also previously said that he had left the area after receiving repeated verbal abuse for complaining to the authorities about the level of anti-social behaviour. The abuse he suffered escalated during a particularly sensitive time for him, when his wife had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He said that he had initially engaged with some students who were very approachable when asked to reduce the volume of the music. However, he then became subject to a barrage of abuse for raising concerns when his requests were disregarded.
It is generally accepted that some young people, who are not students of the two universities or of local further education colleges, travel to the Holyland district, widely considered now to be a partying hotspot, to engage in recreational drinking.
Holylands situation must be subject to “a fundamental transformation”
Councillor McKeown warned however that investment of such extensive resources, including police numbers, was not a sustainable approach for future years. “We can’t take this as an indication that it will be the case in future. We can’t police ourselves out of the challenges the area faces. We need a fundamental transformation.”
For much of the day the Holyland area of South Belfast was unusually quiet for a St. Patrick’s Day, with many students either remaining within their rental accomodation or not venturing into the City due to the lockdown restraints. Some students and young people in the Holyland’s could be seen sitting within the entrance perimeters of their accomodation drinking alcohol and playing music. There were few scenes of the habitual St. Patrick’s Day jubilation, reminiscent of previous years.
In the latter part of the afternoon crowds of young people, many of whom were university students, began to converge on Botanic Gardens.
People in the park, in the earlier part of the day, had said that the numbers of people on the green at Botanic steadily grew to the extent that observation of social distancing became virtually impossible. Images taken by media photographers and members of the public show many people not wearing masks and making no effort to practice social distancing.
The Police eventually approached the Botanic green from the Ormeau embankment side, forming a cordon moving the large group away from the park, preventing a continuation of the breach of Coronavirus Regulations.
Botanic Gardens closed early at around 5pm.
Young people were also reported to have gathered within the Lagan Meadows area of South Belfast, which is situated in a wooded area, off the Lagan Towpath.
Health Message “Heeded”
The policing operation continued well into the early hours of Thursday morning, 18th March. Isolated incidents, including arrests occured as the night wore on in and around the Holyland’s district. A video emerged online on the TikTok platform, during the course of the early hours of March 18th, purporting to show a young man detained on the ground by two policemen. The exact context as that video is concerned remains unclear.
Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd, head of the Police District Policing Command, issued a statement on behalf of the PSNI, on 18th March, saying that the operation, overall, had been a success.
“I am happy to report that the vast majority of people across Northern Ireland heeded the messaging from ourselves, political representatives and partner agencies, and celebrated St Patrick’s Day while adhering to the health regulations.” ACC Todd continued, “Whilst we did note large numbers in some parks and beauty spots, officers implemented our four Es strategy, Engage, Explain, Encourage, and lastly Enforce, and encouraged people to return home where necessary, including a number of groups in Botanic Gardens.”
ACC Todd further revealed that the Police had issued a total of 135 enforcement notices across Northern Ireland, with forty-seven Covid 4 notices and eight Covid 2 notices being issued within South Belfast’s Holyland district. The issuing of Covid 4 notices, also includes a £200 fixed fine. Two people have been referred to the Public Prosecution Service, after repeatedly failing to follow Coronavirus Regulations. In total almost £10,000 in fines were handed out to those in breach of the law.
Breaching The Coronavirus Health Protection Regulations & Universities
Both Queen’s University and Ulster University have been firm, since the commencement of the Coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent legal restricitions, that any students found in contravention of the rules would face significant penalties.
A surge in anti-social behaviour in the September period of last year, when students returned to the University area of South Belfast, was cited by local residents as a grave failure of policy on the part of the authorities. Since then the police presence in the form of vehicle and cycle patrols has noticeably increased.
On March 10th, The Belfast Telegraph revealed that a total of 252 students of Queen’s University had been reported to the University by the Police. 229 of those students had been suspended for a fortnight by the University, following the coming in to force of emergency sanctions, under the University’s Conduct Regulations, for students found to be in breach of the Coronavirus Health Protection Regulations, which have the force of law courtesy of the Public Health Act (Northern Ireland) 1967.
From these figures it is clear that the University authorities are taking a robust approach to those students found to be in breach of the Health Protection Regulations. However, The Gown understands that there are growing concerns within the Queen’s University Student’s Union that the University is privy to information of enforcement actions being taken against members of the public, who have no affiliation to Queen’s.
As part of the University’s data-sharing agreement with the PSNI and other statutory agencies, Queen’s University examines a list of those who have been sanctioned by the authorities to determine who and who is not affiliated with the institution. Those students who have been sanctioned by the Police with enforcement notices, such as COV 2 or COV 4 penalty notices, will automatically face a mandatory two week suspension from Queen’s University.
The process of lockdown easing has been set out in the Northern Ireland Executive’s Pathway to Recovery blueprint. The current restrictions have been in continuous operation since Boxing Day 2020, when all non-essential travel, businesses and hospitality was suspended. It is expected that by April 12th, the Executive will relax the compulsory ‘Stay At Home’ message to that of ‘Stay Local.’