There is an inconvenient truth at the core of the controversy over student misbehaviour in one square kilometre of south Belfast and it is all to do with sectarianism.
On St Patrick's Day the issue of student drunkenness and hooliganism came into sharp focus once again. The battleground was of course Belfast's Holylands, a small area running from the edge of the university district down to the River Lagan where the streets are named after the cities and biblical place names of the Middle East.
Scenes of drunken students taunting police officers, setting fire to cars, throwing bottles and stones at PSNI riot lines and blocking off streets while they held al fresco parties have reignited the arguments about whether it is right to shoehorn so many third level students into a tightly packed area.
Amid all the outrage and anger, most of it from the few remaining indigenous residents of the Holylands, two facts about those causing the trouble are rarely amplified. The first is that judging from the Gaelic football and Glasgow Celtic shirts as well as the names of those the PSNI decided to arrest, it is clear the overwhelming majority of the raucous revellers come from Catholic/nationalist areas of rural Northern Ireland. This is the unspoken truth of the culchie-student "invasion".
The second is that the dominant presence of these students has transformed what was once the only non-sectarian working-class/lower middle-class district to survive the Troubles into an eight-months-a-year nationalist ghetto. The most important lesson to draw from the brazen behaviour of the rural lager louts on St Patrick's Day is how tribalism actually solidified and grew during the years of the peace process.
It would be inaccurate to say that an area such as the Holylands escaped the Troubles. There were a few incidents of bombings and shootings where people living in the area lost their lives. Nonetheless the numbers were far fewer than say across the River Lagan in north Belfast, where almost a quarter of all the deaths in the conflict took place.
Throughout nearly 30 years of civil strife, however, the Holylands remained an enclave for the lower-paid leftwing lecturer, the aspirant teacher, the radical fringe, the punks from both Northern Ireland and beyond (many, for some inexplicable reason, from Bristol in the 1980s) in their squats or those simply wanting to live in an area where territory was not marked out by flags or painted kerbstones.
Among those who grew up or spent decades living in the Holylands even in the darkest years of the Troubles there is a common perception today that the influx of a monoreligious, rural student population, many reared on an aggressive nationalist diet, has altered the nature of the area.
Conversely the main driving force behind the St Patrick's Day violence may have been nihilistic and drink-fuelled but in the background lurked a collective belief among the third level revellers that this is now somehow "their area", that this is now "their territory". Indeed, during a previous television documentary about the rural student influx, longer-term residents who remonstrated with them were dismissed and told this was now "our area".
Back in the 1980s it would have been shocking to witness the sight of, say, an Orange band playing loyalist party tunes marching around the streets of the Holylands. People who wanted to escape parades and paramilitary murals felt relatively safe there even if just south of the river, across the Ormeau Bridge for instance, the UDA was engaged in a campaign of sectarian assassination. Even by the beginning of the peace process it had still survived as a haven for the aspirant worker and the radical leftwinger.
At present the devolved government in Northern Ireland is officially committed to a "shared future" programme that is designed, on paper at least, to create more common space in areas such as housing, sport or education between the two communities. It faces major challenges such as what to do about the so-called "peace walls" that have become near-permanent symbols of division between Protestant and Catholic areas.
The blueprint for social integration also has to tackle a divided education sector in which the overwhelming majority of Catholic and Protestant schoolchildren are still educated apart. There are serious doubts about how much the programme can achieve in terms of creating non-sectarian environments – especially on the big issues of the physical walls or the separate schools.
Perhaps the first place to start would be the Holylands, where the power-sharing coalition could create financial enticements for families to move into the area and conversely to encourage landlords not to turn their houses into homes of multiple occupancy; to persuade the two universities to build more on-campus halls of residence and ensure they become socially, ethnically and religiously mixed; to launch an education campaign within education aimed at persuading second level students, particularly those from rural nationalist Ulster, about the benefits of not following their mates from primary school all the way to Queen's and the UU and instead to go out and meet new people, maybe even in a university outside Northern Ireland.
In short, restoring the Holylands as a unique area of integration, both in terms of religion and class, would be one small step in that "shared future".
This is my reply:-
I disagree with you fundamentally about what can be done with the Holylands. Six years ago the Extern organisation survey found 200 residents besieged by 5,000 students. Today there are between 50 and 80 residents left. Most want rehoused, but the authorities will not do that. The area is gone. The landlords have demolished most of the houses in Rugby Avenue and replaced them with flats. They're pulling the rest down as I speak. Theree is no community left there, and there never will be again. This is profoundly sad and unbearably true. No-one should be rehoused in that area, and no-one will willingly choose to live there.
We have to face up to the fact that the ethno-political conflict continues in a different form. It has metamorphosed into the destruction of neutral spaces like the Holyland, and now Stranmillis. The Universities are being homogenized and the brain drain is not just that of protestants. Anyone who thinks for themselves and can afford to is leaving to study elsewhere, whether below the border or across the water. It's not just the chill factor within the student body. The quality of tuition in Queens is atrocious and it is rightly viewed as an academic slum.
The new middle class from mid-ulster will not study elsewhere because this is where they want to be. They're also not that keen on studying. It's an excuse to party for three years and get a degree at the end of it. What value can anyone place on such a qualification? This is a frightening issue. If our brightest and best are leaving this ignorant bunch will be our future professionals. They will be the glue that holds society together and that should scare everyone shitless. Do you want them teaching your kids, treating you in hospital, representing you in court? A society in intellectual meltdown is doomed and we have to face this rather than hide from it.
Our political class are working together,sometimes I think for their benefit rather than ours. On the ground however, the two communities are pulling further apart. Look at mid-Ulster and South Armagh. The triumphalism of its demon offspring comes from the aggregation of brutal victories by its parents' generation. Every protestant farmer shot off the back of a tractor, every protestant family driven from their home becomes a "fact on the ground". And this mentality plays itself out in the Holyland. It's "their area" and residents, especially protestants, can get lost. A community was driven out, deliberately and systematically by landlords and their tenants. The journalist Suzanne Breen tells her own story. A gang stopped her on a dark night and told her to,
"Sell your house and get the fuck out of the Holylands. This is our area now"