Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Gown quizzes political big-shots

In interviews with some of the main party leaders in Northern Ireland yesterday The Gown asked how things are really going in Stormont, how the politicians view student radicalism nowadays and whether, as many have speculated, the SDLP will merge with Fianna Fail in the near future.

While Ian Jr feels "the Union is strong, ideologically Unionism has won and Republicanism has had to change", Gerry Kelly states that these are simply "boasts" and a United Ireland is as much a Sinn Fein aim as it ever was.

In terms of student politics today, Mark Durkan agrees that "party politics along traditional and conventional lines don't appeal to students and young people the way they did" but all three were adamant that students, by their very nature will always have some sort of motivation to get involved. It seems that now the "game-playing" of the past however takes a back seat to the "real issues" of the present.

For the full interviews with the DUP's Ian Paisely Jnr, Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly and the SDLP's Mark Durkan check out The Gown's next issue, to be released at the end of October.

Tensions continue to rise over Holylands debate

The debate continued, and indeed heated up, after the cameras stopped rolling on the front lawn of Queen's yesterday evening. Following Wednesday morning's attack on 11 cars in Jerusalem street in the Holylands area of South Belfast, BBC Newsline interviewed Alasdair McDonnell, MP for the local area, Student Union President, John Roger and editor of The Gown, Aine Fox for their reactions.

Backtracking on a press release issued in the immediate aftermath of the incident where he had claimed students were most likely responsible, Dr McDonnell recognised that he had been mistaken - police arrested a resident of the area yesterday morning and released him on bail pending further enquiries. McDonnell maintained however that student behaviour in the area has reached intolerable levels and indicated that it was a likely cause of the attack.

In an off-camera derogatory remark Dr McDonnell claimed there are "100 or so bastards" responsible for regular late-night disurbances in the area. In the ensuing debate Union President John Roger demanded an apology which he said he would receive on behalf of all students living in the area, who he reiterated "we must remember were the victims on Wednesday morning".

Initially reluctant, Dr McDonnell did eventually apologise for the remark stating that he was "just looking for solutions" to this long-running and complex problem. It is thought Dr McDonnell and the Union executive will meet in the near future to discuss just precisely what those solutions may be.

What do you think needs to be done to promote student-resident relations in the Holylands area? Are Union actions including the 'Sssh campaign' really working in light of the latest incident?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Trial by Media?

Student Opinion - Catherine Wylie

A middle class family go on holiday to Portugal: two doctors, their young twins and their slightly older daughter. They stay in a beautiful villa in an idyllic resort. Disaster strikes as one night the older daughter tragically disappears into thin air prompting a worldwide hunt. The parents launch a remarkable campaign to find her. So many people go missing every day, but this little girl is different. International celebrities appeal for her to be found on television screens everywhere. The parents visit the Vatican and speak to the Pope. With four months and no breakthrough, the unthinkable happens. The parents are made prime suspects in the disappearance of their daughter. It’s high drama! To be continued…

The above paragraph sounds like an exciting and shocking pitch for the latest Hollywood film. But it’s not. It’s a simplified version of the rollercoaster which the world has been taken on in the mysterious case of Madeline McCann. Not since Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman went missing has there been more news coverage of a missing child. Their case was solved a lot quicker though, and although the culprit was a man who had appeared on TV speaking of his shock and sadness at their disappearance, it wasn’t totally unbelievable that he was the criminal. To think though that the McCann’s are now the prime suspects in the disappearance of Madeline is absolutely ludicrous. How could they possibly have done it? And how can the world allow themselves to be taken in by a sensationalist media who are obsessed with shock value and “reality” television? Because that’s what the Madeline case has become…a sort of reality TV fix which takes a new turn each day. Even the news reporting is reflective of this, with journalists questioning Kate and Gerry’s grieving process like psychologists on ‘Big Brother’. Why isn’t she more emotional, they ask. How can he be so composed in front of the world’s media in the light of what has just happened his family, they write. Don’t they take into consideration that everyone grieves in their own way? And who can say what the “correct” way to behave is when your young daughter has just disappeared without a trace in a foreign country? I am disgusted that some people are deeming the McCann’s to be suspects based solely on their behaviour. This is not enough evidence by any means.

And who can overlook the careless manner with which the case was handled throughout? There appears to be no sound evidence against the McCann’s at all. For instance, the cadaver dog evidence can be ripped to shreds by a defence barrister. They say the dogs detected the “scent of death” in the hired car. Even if they did, this means nothing. The “scent of death” is not the equivalent to the “scent of Madeline’s corpse”. According to a British pathologist, had the DNA been found in the car in a British lab, it would under no circumstances have been returned to the McCann’s. Instead it would have been kept as a critical exhibit in the court case.

Under such media scrutiny, when exactly would the McCann’s have had the chance to dispose of the body? In my opinion, had they killed Madeline by accident, surely then they would not have been able to have composed themselves in the way that they did. No human being could possibly live with the guilt of killing their daughter, dumping her body and involving the world in their tragic story.
Right now, all we have are our own opinions. However, one thing for sure is that there is someone in the world who knows exactly what happened to Madeline McCann on Thursday May 3rd 2007.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Out with the old and in with the new!

The new Gown logo

A selection of Gown logos over the past 52 years.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

'Students must learn to say 'No!' to sub-standard accommodation'

Cracked walls, rising damp, filthy carpet and a sink full of dirty dishes. Sound like a student house to you? Well I’ll give you the sink full of dirty dishes, that’s a self-inflicted characteristic of student living. As for the cracks in the walls and damp making its way towards the ceiling, those are entirely different matters. The grotty bedsit-style accommodation associated with further education has now finally become unacceptable. Society is becoming more rights based on the whole and students are among those now unwilling to accept as ‘a given’ that for the three or more years of their University life they will have to accustom themselves to a dank and dismal house which looks as if it hasn’t been touched since the First World War.

In my first year as a Queen’s student I had my eyes opened as to just how unscrupulous some landlords can be. One particular house with mattresses on the floor of a large room, which also had a cooker and microwave in it, was described as a ‘convenient’ and ‘cosy’ setup. Perhaps I was asking too much but a makeshift bedroom-cum-kitchen wasn’t really what I had envisaged as my first experience of Uni life. Stories of rat infestations are not unheard of either; some landlords seem to see students simply as pound signs, caring very little for the state of the accommodation they rent to them.

The annual mad rush for accommodation for the next academic year begins in January, with many people having signed up to leases by St Patrick’s Day. The common misconception is that there aren’t enough houses for the multitude of students – this results in people taking the first thing they see in the fear there won’t be anything left if they leave as late as, oh I don’t know, April?! Viewing just two or three houses and signing a lease in a rush is a complete recipe for disaster. Many of the landlords out there simply don’t care what students are living in; £180 rent per month has been quoted to me personally as an excuse for a house full of damp. “You get what you pay for love” were the filthy rich businessman’s exact words as I recall.

At present, the average rent for a refurbished house in the Holyland area of Belfast is £200 per month. These prices are similar in Stranmillis and on the Lisburn Road. If we are going to be handing over £2400 a year to these private landlords then the least we can expect is a property fit for the purposes of multiple occupation. HMO standard dwellings will adhere to all the legal health and safety requirements, and they certainly won’t have damp.

Vice President of Welfare in the Student’s Union, Ciárnan Helferty has called for people to take their time and be aware of their rights when choosing rental accommodation. “People have to learn to say No and the Union has a responsibility to equip people with the skills necessary to be able to say No.” In an effort to raise awareness of the issue the Union will be providing first year Elms Village students with information packs in January. These will set out the main rights of tenants and the things to look out for when viewing houses.

The key is to look at as many properties as possible and ensure you are happy with everything before signing a lease, which may see you bound to a sub-standard property for the next year. If enough students refuse to accept these second-rate properties then landlords will be forced to sit up and take notice. Remember, there are more houses out there than tenants and the standard is improving with each rejection those unscrupulous landlords get.

Union victory for students

An automatic financial charge on Elms students who need a replacement room key on 10 occasions throughout the year has been wiped out by the University The Gown has learned. VP Welfare, Ciárnan Helferty, and VP Clubs and Services, Steffan Rafferty, pleaded the case on behalf of the 1500 students who make Elms their home for 38 weeks of the year.

The practice had been a £20 charge on top of the ten £3.50 charges per replacement key. This charge was demanded even if the student in question returned the misplaced key after receiving a replacement. With automatically locking doors, finding yourself locked out of your rooms is understandably easily done; therefore many students have had to avail of the replacement key facility. However, the £20 extra charge on top of the £35 already forked out seemed harsh on the student according to Mr Helferty and of advantage to no-one but the University.

The removal of this section of the Elms contract is a small victory for students and proof that, occasionally the Student’s Union can actually be of practical assistance… Meanwhile, a mandatory £20 charge on every student at the end of the year cited as ‘administration fees’ is being “looked into” by both the Union and the University.

Summer - how was it for you?

Student Summers are a transient luxury so we should use them as productively as we can while they're available. Here is some advice from a 3rd year Medical student who urges all students to 'get out there and explore'!

Advice of a serial Inter-railer
- Alix Murphy
Feed your hunger for freedom with an expedition through Europe's cities by train. Having been lucky enough to embark upon this amazing adventure twice, I hereby command you to seize any opportunity and go interrailing! A train ticket, an adventurous spirit and a toothbrush will turn a run-of-the-mill summer into the experience of a lifetime...

Even the most successful trip requires minimal planning. Resist the temptation to set a rigid itinerary and leave your route open. With flexible dates of travel cheap flights are available to most cities and I found choosing the start and end points quite a challenge. However, if you have several weeks to reach your final destination, I recommend referring to a map and selecting the most distant city that sparks an interest. Istanbul may strike your fancy or perhaps you are feeling a little less ambitious and the tourist hotspot of Rome is more your style. Whatever your preference, search out the bargain flight that will begin your journey and decide your winding route homewards as your fancy takes you.

With regards the nightmare of packing, consult the usual guides and include a few essentials that may not necessarily spring to mind at first - namely hair mousse (straighteners and humidity do not go hand in hand, trust me!), student ID (for cheaper entry into all those museums you're bound to visit...) and a bottle opener (for the wine on the 12 hour night train to Prague). Leave behind a torch and sleeping bag, regardless of other advice, they'll weigh you down and never be used.

If a healthy dose of culture is what you yearn for, the city of Krakow in Poland has a lot to offer. A guided tour of Auschwitz-Birkenhau, the biggest concentration camp of the Nazi era, is a must, even for those of us who may not know much about WWII. The main square offers horse and cart rides, a relatively cheap yet grand way to tour the city, and leaders of the main youth hostels organise Booze Cruises for some night-time entertainment.

The Czech city of Prague has a wealth of sights to see and historical buildings to visit. The panoramic views over the city from Prague Castle make the climb through the narrow streets more than worthwhile.

For the culinary enthusiast, Rome exceeds all expectations especially in the more authentic restaurants off the beaten track, which are top-quality and won't break the bank. However, if you are feeling more adventurous Budapest offers something unique for every palate. Try the Hungarian specialities of goose and cabbage!

A massive motivation for the majority of travellers is the opportunity to meet young people from all corners of the world. The Hungarian lake-side town of Siofok is brimming with like-minded people drawn by the Coca-Cola beach, abundance of bars and party atmosphere. Youths flood in at the weekend where big name DJs appear in the nearby clubs. Over 26s look out of place, so don’t expect to see many families. Remember to take lots of photographs of your friends and all your new German, Austrian, Croatian (insert Eastern European country here) acquaintances!

If you've got a day to spare and happen to be near Paris why not book some last-minute accommodation and head for the cultural capital of Europe? Despite its pricey reputation it is incredibly easy to spend 24 hours in Paris and spend very little - take a walk around the Eiffel Tower by night and head to the Arc de Triomphe during the day after a stroll down the Champs-Elysees.The metro and food will be the only costs if you resist the temptation to buy over-priced items from the street merchants who prey on tourists at every corner.

Always be cautious and sceptical of anyone who tries to distract you on your travels. Don't let those four random guys take a photo with you outside the Collosseum - chances are they'll run off with your purse before your cheesy grin has had a chance to wear off. Your valuables should be at the forefront of your mind in all situations, passport and money being strapped to your being if at all possible!

I leave you with my final and most important piece of advice. Go interrailing, have fun, get out there and enjoy yourself!

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We're back!

After a four-month summer break The Gown is back and raring to go for another academic year. We hope you all had an adventurous, exciting, unforgettable few months whether you sampled Spain, explored Estonia or took a break from student life by daring to enter the world of work to earn a little cash!

The next nine months will see many of you ‘newbies’ become accustomed to University life – the endless stream of parties being the most taxing aspect of course…! Others, like myself may be nearing the end of their student experience (much to our distress) facing finals and the prospect of a grown-up job in the rather less appealing ‘real world’.

Whatever stage you’re at, we will endeavour to bring you the latest news and views from Queen’s and the general University area, and even keep you entertained with a little injection of humour along the way. We intend to use this blog for current stories as well as for comment on the content of the paper.

Let us know your thoughts via e-mail to or by simply posting a comment here. Or get more involved as a writer, designer, photographer or advertising manager by calling up to our office on the third floor of the Union.

* Due to the limited space in the latest issue of The Gown (to be released soon) some of our extra articles will be posted here for your reading pleasure.