Northern Ireland

Belfast: Officer injured and three men charged after disturbances in Holyland area

Holylands trouble
Image caption The trouble broke out at about 02:00 GMT on Thursday

Three men have been charged after overnight disturbances in the Holyland area of south Belfast during which police came under attack from crowds.

One officer was injured when bottles were thrown at police in Agincourt Avenue as a crowd of about 300 people gathered ahead of St Patrick's Day.

The disturbances lasted for over two hours, ending at about 04:30 GMT.

The three men, aged 19, 20 and 21, are due in court next month. The 20-year-old was charged with assault on police.

Image caption The Holyland has had a heavy police presence on Thursday, while council workers and staff from Queen's University and Ulster University are also patrolling the area

He has also been charged with disorderly behaviour, obstructing police and resisting police.

The teenager faces a charge of riotous behaviour while the 21-year-old is charged with disorderly behaviour.

There was a heavy police presence in the Holyland on Thursday.

The PSNI said they went to the area in the early hours of Thursday after a crowd was reported to be blocking the road and throwing missiles at homes and cars.

Vehicles parked along the street were damaged during the trouble.

Media captionThe disturbances lasted for about two hours and three people were arrested

One police officer said some people in the crowd had been singing "pro-IRA songs".

The officer who was injured was hit on the shoulder with a bottle.

Officers were in riot gear and had police dogs.

Image caption About 300 people gathered in the area

The PSNI expressed concern that more trouble could erupt in Belfast's Holyand area on Thursday night.

Speaking on BBC's Evening Extra programme, Ch Supt Chris Noble said significant operations are ongoing in the area and that more arrests are expected.

"Where there are offences, we will be dealing with people who are committing them.

"What young people do could have a life-changing effect for them in terms of their education and their employment.

"We're dealing with people who are abusing alcohol and then abusing the community within which they live.

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Image caption Students began queuing at an off-licence in the Holyland on Thursday morning

"I would strongly encourage people to consider the long term consequences of engaging in any anti-social or criminal behaviour. This could lead to you receiving a fine and a criminal record."

About twenty staff from Queen's University and Ulster University are spending the day and night in the Holyland area.

The BBC understands that at about 18:00 GMT, the staff were instructed by police to remain in a church in the area for their own safety.

The staff have been working with the PSNI and Belfast City Council to plan for the day for a number of months.

Media captionMany, although not all, are students at Queen's and Ulster universities

In 2015, a number of students from both universities were disciplined after St Patrick's Day.

Queen's University investigated 82 students, suspending five and issuing fines totalling £5,210.

Ulster University disciplined 84 students.

None were suspended, but a number were issued with fines of between £50 and £100.

On Thursday morning, one student living in the area said the crowd had been good-natured before the police arrived.

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Image caption Staff from Belfast City Council cleaned the area up on Thursday

Another told the BBC: "It was very hectic, some would say mayhem, it was very crazy.

"There was a lot of jumping on cars, hitting cars, speeding cars, there was a couple of boys getting hit and whatever.

"But at the same time there was a lot of good craic going on."

The area has been the scene of disturbances on previous St Patrick's Days.

Image caption A number of cars were damaged on Agincourt Avenue

In a statement, Queen's University, Belfast, condemned the trouble.

It said: "Staff from the university and the students union are on the ground in the Holyland area, as they will be tonight.

"While the vast majority of Queen's students will celebrate St Patrick's Day in an enjoyable and peaceful manner, Queen's will fully investigate any complaints or reports of anti-social behaviour."

The statement said a "strict off-campus disciplinary code" is in place at the university, and that if any Queen's student is found to have brought the university into disrepute, they will be "subject to the full rigours of this code".

The university said it has been working with the PSNI, Belfast City Council, Ulster University and Belfast Met since January, and that it supports "robust enforcement of legislation in relation to anti-social behaviour".

Image caption Streets in the area were littered with empty bottles on Thursday morning

An Ulster University spokeswoman said: "Given the significant amount of work carried out by all partners in advance of St Patrick's Day, we are disappointed with the behaviour displayed last night.

"The Holyland area of south Belfast attracts a combination of university and college students, non-residents and post-primary students, but, as yet, it is not possible to verify specifically who was responsible for last night's behaviour."

Ray Farley of the Belfast Holyland Regeneration Association described Thursday morning's trouble as disgraceful.

"It's the old expression 'when the drink gets in, the sense goes out'," he said.

"These folks, the next day when they're being disciplined or whatever's happening, they're the saddest people, but when they're with their friends they think they're invulnerable.

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Image caption Young people at a house in the Holyland on Thursday morning

"They must understand that this could have serious repercussions because if you are arrested for something like this you won't be able to go to America, you won't be able to get certain jobs, you will have great difficulty.

"So I'd stress to people - please don't get yourself into the situation where you're going to drink to excess."

Briege Ruddy, from College Park Avenue Residents' Association, also condemned the disturbances.

Image caption Briege Ruddy said Holyland residents have a right to live in peace

"We will challenge this behaviour, because this is our area, residents have a right to live here, we have a right to sleep and to carry on with our work and we will do that and eventually this will change," she said.

The three men who were charged have all been released on bail and are due in court in Belfast on 13 April.