The ruination of the Holy Land

The complete change in character of the Holy Land, South Belfast, from that of long-term family residences to over 90% student occupation in Houses of Multiple Occupancy (HMOs), in just a few years is well documented. A firsthand accounts is provided by Alan Murray, writing for Fortnight magazine: “Who paid for the ruination of the Holy Land? You did” (April/May 2005):

There aren’t many of us left. One by one the families and pensioners have sold up and gone. It’s hard to blame them. I’ve tried to get out myself, but there’s nowhere to move to, not if you don’t own your home.

So now I have to fight. The truth is I don’t want to go. My home may not be much, but I’ve lived here for fourteen years and I’m not giving up. I suppose it’s the courage of the desperate. If I had an escape route would I be so stubborn? Probably not. I don’t pretend to be terribly noble.

It’s 3.25 am. I doubt I’ll sleep before 5. Outside I hear them shouting. Of course I could call the police, but it never makes a difference. Most people have given up trying. For years they have felt free to run riot. Word’s got about, “come to the Holy Lands. You can do anything and there will be no arrests, no charges, no meaningful discipline from the universities. Do whatever you want; parties in the street? No problem; kick in doors? No problem; football in the street? No problem; why not play hurley with beer cans? No problem” The morning after the night before reveals streets strewn with filth, vandalised phone boxes and some group efforts; overturned skips, garden walls kicked over and the large eurobins emptied into the street. Of course you could argue that it’s just youthful high spirits and good clean fun. If you did I’d probably punch you in the face.

People are living in fear. After the Spotlight expose a mob besieged the home of a resident. The home of another was attacked with flour. A pensioner’s windows were smeared with excrement. If you’ve seen Deliverance you’ll know how it feels to live here.

The police have a presence in the area. They make no arrests. If they’re sent out to a student house they’re told to “fuck off” and that’s just what they do. This policy is counterproductive. It makes perfectly clear to the students that they are immune. They are quite literally above the law. I’m afraid the police can’t hide behind excuses about how much time and effort it takes to process an arrest. It would be honest if there were no police on the streets. A few vehicles roaming around while the pampered and privileged run riot is an obscene token gesture that fools no-one. We simply do not have equality under the law. If you or I were to behave like these people we would be arrested, thrown in the cells overnight and prosecuted. The wealthy don’t have that problem. It really is a class war.

A few years ago, when I was younger and believed in things like, you know, hope, I was a student representative. I’m ashamed to say that now. Anyway, I wrote an article (I don’t think anyone published it) in which I said that abolishing the grant and introducing fees would exile the working class from the universities and create a new generation of graduates who believed in no such thing as society. It was already too late. The generation from hell had arrived and it’s got steadily worse ever since. As for the working class, we can get lost.

As far as the universities are concerned each student is a cash cow, and the higher the fees the more they like it. Academia and public service? Forget it.

In recent years Queen’s has closed the only Geosciences department on the island followed by the Russian, Italian and Classics departments. Yet they have doubled their student numbers and then some. Staff will tell you that the quality of undergraduates is atrocious and gets worse every year. Queen’s is suffering a student brain drain. Entry requirements have been repeatedly debased. Once a centre of academe, it has been turned into a polytechnic. This is the painful truth that no-one will speak openly.

You might ask, “If Queen’s has doubled its numbers where are all these people going to stay?”

Well, you might ask it. Queen’s has other priorities. At a recent residents’ meeting I asked Gerry McCormack, the monkey they’ve thrown out to soak up the flak (the organ grinders being unaccountable), why they have not increased the numbers in campus accommodation.

“Well,” he bleated, “the government won’t give us money for that.”

“Well,” I said, “I knew that was coming.”

Queen’s is currently spending over £40 million on an obscene corporate folly disguised as a library. The irony of this when they can’t be bothered buying new books for the libraries they already have should be lost on no-one. There are books in the science library older than I am. And I’m 37. Of course nobody wants this building, apart from the senior executives who have so much money to play with they don’t know what to do with it.

“Anyway,” whines Gerry, “we can’t make people stay in university accommodation.”

Of course he can. Universities in England including Oxford and Cambridge do. They use things called contracts. All school-leavers, first years, should live with family or stay in halls. Naturally the same should apply to the University of Ulster.

There is, however, a punch line to this story. The name of the new corporate nightmare? The George Bain Building. You have to laughy. It’s either that or cry.

“Surely,” I hear you say, “the universities must be doing something. They must discipline these people. Don’t they?” It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious, but I know a lot of students are laughing. Until this year Queen’s had discipline no-one. In fact as I’m writing this they still have suspended only one student. But what about Jordanstown? They’ve expelled students and suspended them and what about all those final warnings? Jordanstown has expelled no students. “What about suspensions?” you ask. Suspensions exist in name only. No-one is excluded from the university. Their exams are put back. That’s all. More time to study. “Final warnings?” Now they’re kidding. The “three strikes” policy means that residents have to prove irrefutably that particular students have deprived them of peace on three separate occasions. “What then?” “Well, you see, we don’t discipline them. The disciplinary committee is a totally separate entity and it decides what punishments to hand out.”

The students who tourtured me non-stop for an entire academic year each got a £100 fine. They would spend more than that on a night out. My students went down the toilet.

How did it happen? How did the only part of the inner city that was a mixed, tolerant, quiet and civil turn into a playground for rich hillbillies? For years a handful of landlords have been buying up every available property. Of course if a family or pensioner can’t face the prospect of another year living next door to more drunken, abusive yahoos then mister landlord will make them an offer. There’s another punchline to this sorry tale. I hope you’re still sitting down. Your taxes paid for it all. The man from the Housing Executive came to a residents’ meeting to tell us all what a great job he’s done.

“How big is the average grant, per property you gave to the landlords?” I asked.

“It’s £24,000 per property. Of course that’s the average. It could be as little as £8,000 or as much as £36,000.”

He seemed really proud.

Now my maths isn’t good, but if landlords own say 1,000 properties in a the area multipl
ied by £24,000, that £24 million of your money given away to landlords in one small area alone. Of course that’s based on the average. It could be an awful lot more.

Think how much more good for society the Housing Executive could have done with that money, at a time of increasing homelessness.

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