Reaching out…

April 23, 2009

Published: Coleraine Chronicle, 23rd April 2009, page 17

In scenes resembling the TV shows Ground Force and Changing Rooms, local church folk – many of them teenagers – spent part of their Easter holidays carrying out acts of kindness in the Triangle Area last week [15-17 April]. For three days over 80 volunteers picked up litter, mowed lawns, weeded gardens, painted fences and stripped wallpaper free of charge as part of a programme called StreetReach, run by several of the local churches to demonstrate love to the local community.

After the success of the programme last year, local church leaders decided that it would be beneficial to run StreetReach again this Easter. Volunteers met each morning for a debriefing and time of worship, before heading into their local areas to help anyone who needed it in what one leader described as ‘The most relevant act of worship we will carry out’.

One of the co-ordinators, Jonny Doey explained what it was they were doing. ‘Streetreach is were we get people together from the local churches to go out into the community and to show acts of kindness and to relate the love of God in word and deed.
‘We’ve had young people involved from the age of 14 who have been coming in and serving during their holiday time. Not only that, but the Council and the Department for Social Development have got involved too.’

Having advertised their services via leaflet drops in Ballysally, Dhu Varren, Portstewart and the Heights area of Coleraine, the job list had mounted even before they began. In Ballysally the team spent much of their time picking up litter in the area as well as spending time with people in the community over cups of tea. In Dhu Varren, around 20 folk dressed in red and yellow t-shirts from the Elim and Presbyterian churches cut grass, painted fences and stripped layers of wallpaper. In Portstewart the young people learnt just in time the difference between a plant and a weed as they tidied up gardens in the Mullaghmacall and Lever Road areas. And in the Heights area, some of the young people decided to paint the park at Kylemore Nursery School as a way of brightening up the area. Robert McMullan, a 17 year old from the town had had the idea. ‘It was really old and there were names scored on so we just sanded it down and washed it and started painting it with bright colours and you can see a big difference in it now, it just shines so much more.’

One woman who StreetReach had a big impact on was Linda McAuley, who had just recently moved into Ferndale Avenue in Portstewart. She had responded to one of the flyers, as she needed help to chop large amounts of timber she had received into blocks for firewood. Initially four people had turned up to help on the first day, but as time went on the rest of the team followed. ‘ I looked out the back window at one point,’ Linda says, ‘and it was like a flurry of wee birds and worker fairies had come in in brightly coloured t-shirts. At that stage there were about 15 young people then working incredibly hard, and they ended up giving the garden a complete makeover, cutting the grass, trimming the back bushes, not just chopping the wood.’

‘The thing that I was noticing and that I couldn’t get over,’ Linda continued, ‘is that they were all so happy doing it. They were young people that were genuinely happy out helping other people and it just warmed me through to the soul. I cried and l laughed all in the one day. It was a lovely sight and I will never forget the kindness because it wasn’t done in a way that made me feel bad about asking for the help. Everybody has been so friendly and kind and happy and chatty and normal. It didn’t feel like there was an act of charity being done – it just felt like really genuine people coming out to help other people.’

With little reward, organisational chaos and extra responsibility, why would those who organised StreetReach do such a thing? ? ‘In the book of Jeremiah,’ Jonny explains, ‘it says to seek the welfare of the city and we believe that God here is calling us to seek the welfare of our cities and in the upkeep of them as well. We also want to go out and be hands and feet of Christ in the community, to let people realise that being a Christian is about serving and that the church is interested in people and the church wants to be real with people. We want people to see that the church is alive, but more importantly that Jesus Christ is alive.’

With dirty hands, paint in their hair and wet clothes from Wednesday’s rain, what inspires young people to give up three days of their Easter holidays, and get involved with StreetReach? Robert, who was volunteering for the second year, concludes, ‘I guess it’s for the love of Jesus. He’s got such a big part to play in all our lives. For me he’s changed my life. I would never have dreamed of painting a park, or helping someone clean up their garden just for the complete love of Jesus. He’s got so much to share and he wants to share it with everybody and to use us.’

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Not all students to blame for riots

March 25, 2009

Published: Belfast Newsletter, 25th March 2009, page 14

Robin Peake, 23, is a Final Year History and Journalism student at the University of Ulster, Coleraine

As students, we are as appalled as anybody at the inexcusable behaviour witnessed in Belfast’s Holylands area on Tuesday. The area has long been an issue in local news coverage and remains a topic that springs to mind any time students are mentioned.
With a BBC survey on the same day showing that many universities want a sharp increase in tuition fees, with some desiring the removal of a cap altogether, this was not a good day for students to garner sympathy for their cause. Already seen in some quarters as tax-dodgers, a drain on the public purse, lazy and drunkards, we have an ever increasing battle to fight if we want to promote a positive image.

I am personally ashamed that fellow students could cause such a diversion of PSNI resources, particularly at a time when 350 officers have been deployed to join the hunt for the dissidents responsible for last week’s murders. I am ashamed that students cannot enjoy a day off in a peaceful manner, adding to the colourful festivities that the rest of the city enjoyed, and instead caused such disruption and chaos.

The blame for Tuesday’s antic lies not with the police whose heavy-handed approach was only necessary because of the threat to public property and personal safety that the mob was presenting. Nor does it lie with the Universities who cannot be held liable for the behaviour of their students off campus. The blame lies squarely at the feet of those students and non-students who allowed excessive drinking habits to fuel such behaviour which has further tarnished our flagging reputation.

The reality is however, that such incidents are rare. The good weather seen on Tuesday combined with the fact the universities were closed were major contributing factors in the all-day drinking binge that culminated in the scenes that layered our newspapers yesterday morning. Students are demonised somewhat, but we are not as bad as we allow ourselves to be portrayed. Students from University of Ulster, Magee have this year embarked on a ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ mission, to practically support local residents and promote the reputation of students in the Maiden City. Here at Coleraine the Students Union are liaising with the Council for a litter pick up in off-campus accommodation areas. Some students from the Christian Union did something similar last year after the North West 200 motorbike races and residents were as impressed as they were surprised by what they saw. And right across the University of Ulster campuses, thousands of pounds were raised for various local charities during Raise and Give (RAG) week held in the middle of February. These are student driven initiatives designed not as some form of propaganda, to convince the rest of the population that deep down we are nice people, but because we believe that as students and residents we have a responsibility to serve the community that we are a part of.


‘Rowdy’ students disrupt north coast resort

March 19, 2009

Published Belfast Newsletter, 19 March 2009, page 9

Students in the Holylands area in Belfast were not the only culprits of disruptive behaviour last Tuesday. There was trouble too in Portstewart, where a significant number of students attending the nearby University of Ulster, Coleraine live throughout the week. In Old Mill Grange, off Lisadell Avenue where a large proportion of students living off campus reside, students were reported as putting traffic cones and roadwork signs in the middle of the street, forcing drivers to manoeuvre around them. Arguments fuelled by alcohol spilled out into the street and rowdy behaviour was noted from 6pm onwards, forcing police to step up their patrols of the area which they had been visiting all day.

Rebecca Golding, 20, an English and Education student at the University who lives in the area said; “I get extremely annoyed when students give other students a bad name, when many of us have simply come to University for a good education”. Whilst she said that there was “nothing wrong with a party here and there”, she condemned the behaviour, saying “It shows a lack of respect for other residents and brings down the reputation of the vast majority of students here.”

Local Alliance Councillor, Barney Fitzpatrick firmly expressed his disapproval towards the Students’ behaviour. “I completely condemn this sort of behaviour. Just because students had a day off from University is no excuse to spend it drinking excess amounts of alcohol which inevitably results in this kind of behaviour” he said. Cllr Fitzpatrick went on to say however, “This behaviour is in no way representative of the majority of students here at Coleraine. The Students Union has liaised well with local residents and the police to seek to minimise this behaviour and some students are involved in initiatives to serve the community.”


The Dispassionate Student?

March 12, 2009

Published: UFOURia Spring 2009

Robin Peake attended the Students’ Union protest against fees at UUC and was taken aback by what he saw.

Students have a history of making a stand, and making a difference. In 1941 the White Rose movement was formed by students in Munich, making a defiant stand against the Nazi Regime. The chain of events leading up to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was started by peaceful student demonstrations. In 1967 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was formed, spurred by Catholic Students who were benefitting from the free education that had come into Northern Ireland in 1947 under the new ‘Welfare State’ and who were now disenchanted with discrimination from local authorities. The Tiananmen protests in China, culminating in the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 came off the back of students dissatisfied with the Chinese method of governance. Around the same time in Europe, students were holding pro-democracy protests in Soviet states, which can be argued to be a catalyst for the rapid downfall of communism.

Yet where is the passionate student today? Last year, a protest organised against fees was held at Stormont. Some 30 students bothered to turn up. Not so long again at UUC, the Union General meeting attracted only 40 people, though this was twice as many as the considerably larger UUJ campus. Talk about issues of Fairtrade and the student is interested in change, but only if someone else will do it for them. Speak about poor parking facilities, and the threat of doing away with Sunday train services for which many students on this campus rely on, and there are complaints, but no action.

It disheartens me to see a vast number of young people here, affected by various issues but so dispassionate and apathetic that they don’t want to see anything changed. Maybe it all comes back to selfishness? Why bother campaigning if by the time we have change I won’t be here any longer? Why lobby on Fairtrade if all it does is ease my conscience a little?

Tuesday, 2nd December seemed different though. The Students’ Union organised a protest against Fees. At the minute in Northern Ireland, tuition fees stand at £3,145 per annum, the maximum which Universities can charge. There is a short term proposed move to increase this by £80, to help ‘deal with inflation’. On top of this, Sir Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionists is calling for a removal of the cap, meaning that Universities could charge as much as they like. This would lead to an increase to £5,000, £10,000, £20,000…who knows. Ultimately it would weed out the last remaining students from low-income families, and ensure that our institution-educated people are those people who come from middle class backgrounds. The Bible talks about campaigning for the poor, lobbying for justice.

Isaiah says;
“Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”
(1v16-17)

He goes on to say;
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”
(58 v 6)

Ultimately the majority of students are not coming to protest because of any God-given command, but I was shocked to see the numbers who started arriving from 12.30 in the Students Union, ready to make their voice heard

Why? The increase is unlikely to affect us, especially for those of us who are in our last year; it’s more for those teenagers who will be coming to Uni in the years to come. And yet students wanted to speak for those who couldn’t speak. Students wanted to stand up for their brothers and sisters who would be coming to University after them, and didn’t want them to be labelled with an even bigger financial burden.

There were probably around 150 people gathered in the Students Union building. Councillors Billy Leonard (Sinn Fein) and Barney Fitzpatrick (Alliance) spoke well and passionately. Their calls for students to continue to be active and to hold politicians accountable (all 5 major parties in Northern Ireland committed to a removal of students fees in 2004) were greeted with loud cheers.

Followed thereafter a march from the Students Union building to the Central building. Shouts and chants were heard. Upon entering the front entrance of the University, these grew louder. Classes were disrupted. Students and staff stopped to watch. Security men stood on the steps of the stairs.
“What do we want?”
– “No Fees”
“When do we want them?”
– “Now!”
We all sat down on the floor, the local photographer clicking like crazy, the media students grabbing their soundbytes for their voxpops as the chants continued, growing louder. Adrian, the Site VP tried to make a speech but could barely be heard above the racket.

I was in awe. Here were students, doing what students do best. Having their voice heard. Making a stand, against perceived injustice.

The Assembly should be listening. The University should be scared. And I think they were. The poor security chaps didn’t seem to know what to do. As I made my way up the stairs for the class I was late for, I was grabbed on the arm and told I could not do so, that I wasn’t allowed up there with a sign (which was a mock of a Father Ted protest). When I went round and used the lift, there the little bald man on an ego trip was again, having cleverly scented my devious plan. In the end, my class was cancelled, presumably due to the Lecturer being unable to have herself heard as the deafening roars continued.

If we students ever realise the potential to change the society we live in, the world will be an exciting (for some) and scary (for others) place.

I am a happy man. The Revolutionary Student isn’t dead. He’s just having a break


Robin runs race of his life

July 12, 2008

Published: Belfast Newsletter, 12th July 2008, page 3

The world renowned festival of San Fermín is held annually in the city of Pamplona, Northern Spain. Orginating in the 15th Century and made famous in Hemmingway´s 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, the festival has become synonymous with one event – The encierro or The Running of the Bulls.

At least one person is seriously injured every year, and there have been 14 deaths since records began in 1924. The last person to get killed by one of the bulls was Matthew Tassio, a 22 year old American tourist in 1995. This is no picnic, and many of the locals refuse to participate in the event where they claim naive tourists are just as dangerous as the 1100 lb bulls.

At 6.30am on the Wednesday of the San Fermín festival, the crowds begin to gather. Three-quarters of an hour later the police have hemmed them in in the square at the centre of the half mile stretch while the street cleaners clear the way of food wrappers, beer bottles and the comatosed.

And here in the midst of all this madness is little old me. A 22 year old Ballynahinch boy with a pair of trainers and a heart beating faster than a New York rapper. Why am I here? Because many years ago I started to draw up a list of things to do before I die and somewhere amongst Own a Ford Capri and Kiss a Nun lies one chilling task – Run with the Bulls.

I know that as I grow older my illusion of invincibility will disappear and I need to run now while my limbs lack stiffness and my head lacks sense. I have been warned by both those at home and the locals about the dangers of it, and 13 injuries on Monday´s run will have done nothing to allay my mother´s fears.

I´m travelling with my friend Mark and we managed to get a few hours sleep in a nearby park – Getting accomodation during the festival is impossible unless you are willing to sell a kidney or two. We missed breakfast so I have a few sandwiches in a plastic bag with me but for some reason neither of us are hungry. As we stand packed in like sardines the nervous energy is evident. A few people burst into song as a way of easing the tension. I look around at the faces. Some are grinning, eagerly anticipating the run. The veterans look determined and focused. For the majority of the crowd however, the colour of their face has drained to match the bleach white top and trousers which is traditional San Fermín garb along with a red necktie.

About 15 minutes before they release the eight bulls the police step back to allow us to move to any chosen point on the course. I will be running on the notorious Estafeta street which is a 400 metre stretch with only a few chances of escape. Behind me stands an Australian cowering in a shallow doorway for whom the glorious idea of running with the bulls has just met reality. I meet a Dublin guy called Emmett, who is also running for the first time. We pray.

At 8 o´clock exactly the first rocket goes off, signalling that the bulls have been released from the pen. Some runners sprint off straight away. They will arrive in the stadium before they even see a bull and will rightly be booed by the crowd already in there waiting for their arrival. A second rocket should follow shortly signalling that they have all left the pen. The bulls will run safely if tightly packed a herd, but if one is separated it can become afraid and highly dangerous. We wait for the second rocket to come but it doesn´t. Finally after 20 seconds or so we hear it. Emmett and I look at each other, knowing that our pipe dream is now very real and very dangerous.

Shortly after the thunder of feet and hooves is heard and the adrenalin has very much kicked in. A mass of people burn around the corner below us, terror evident in their faces as they look backwards at what is to us an unseen enemy. The sound of the now overtaken bell oxen reminds us of what is coming. I turn upwards and run, glancing back for a glimpse of the bulls. I get what I asked for and my pace increases. In front of me people have tripped and wisely remain on the ground. My selfish nature kicks in and I trample over them determined to keep on running, my heart now beating loudly. As I reach the escape point half way up Estafeta the bulls pass by me safely on the other side of the street. The crowd follow them, hoping to get into the stadium to witness the rest of the morning´s festivities. I let them run ahead, as I make my way back towards the Town Hall area where Mark was running. As I dander back down the now half empty street I hear a familiar sound. Around the corner comes a raucous roar of people, with that terrified look in their eyes. Of course – The second rocket. In my adrenalin craze I had forgotten that there must have been some bulls slow to leave the pen. I can see three of them, their horns glaringly close to some of the runners coming straight for me. I turn again and this time run more daringly in the centre of the street. These bulls seem slower, so I can run ahead of them for longer, allowing them to get within 10 metres or so before deciding that is enough danger for me and peeling off to the side to watch them sprint past.

I peer warily to check that they are the last bulls coming for me, and once happy that that is the case I dander back down to the town hall, adrenalin still pumping, hand shaking as I grab a pen and stroke it off my list.


Top marks for clean-up students

May 22, 2008

Published: Coleraine Chronicle 22nd May 2008

DSCF4232

A group of students have been praised by Portstewart Residents for volunteering to pick up litter after Saturday’s North West 200 races. Around 25 young people sacrificed their Saturday evening to pick up bottles, tins, cigarette butts and other litter on the old golf course which stretches from the starting grid to York corner on the race track.

One lady who lives on the Portstewart Road said “Students get such a bad press and its so refreshing to see them cleaning up this mess. The amount of litter that is left on that course is a disgrace.”

Rachel Logan is the 20 year undergraduate whose idea it was to mobilise the students, many of whom go to the Christian Union at the University of Ulster, Coleraine. She said; “We saw a need and we just felt that it was a good way of showing and being an example of God’s love. We saw a practical need and I think that at times us Christians can be too airy-fairy.”

Rachel, who studies Psychology, praised Coleraine council who were only too happy to assist this free offer of help. “We contacted the Council who were really pleased and welcoming of our help and they provided us with bin liners and gloves and assured us that they would take away the rubbish and they were really helpful.”


Fairtrade Fortnight at Coleraine University

March 12, 2008

Published: UFOURia Spring 2008

A new social action group set up at the Coleraine campus made their presence known on the Bridge during Fairtrade fortnight (25th February – 9th March). ‘Speak’, as they are known, spent the first week offering information on the Fairtrade logo to those who were interested, as well as encouraging students and staff alike to sign a petition urging the university to follow Queen’s and gain Fairtrade status. During the second week they had a variety of products on offer and gave some samples away as well as selling tea, coffee and chocolate, all bearing the Fairtrade mark. Fairtrade ensures a fair price for the producer as well as guaranteeing ethical purchasing i.e. there has been no slave or child labour used in generating the product you buy. The method of providing assistance to third world workers through ‘Trade not Aid’ is essential in the sustainable development of farms in Africa and South America.
In order for the university to be officially recognised as a Fairtrade University, five criteria must be met. These are:

1. The Student Union and the university authorities both create a Fairtrade policy incorporating these five goals.
2. Fairtrade foods are made available for sale in all campus shops. Fairtrade foods are used in all cafés/restaurants/bars on campus. Where this is not possible, there is a commitment to begin to use Fairtrade foods in these establishments as soon as it becomes possible to do so.
3. Fairtrade foods (for example, coffee and tea) are served at all meetings hosted by the university and the SU, and are served in all university and SU management offices.
4. There is a commitment to campaign for increased Fairtrade consumption on campus.
5. Set up a Fairtrade Steering Group

Surely it is our basic responsibility to encourage the sale of Fairtrade products in the university, knowing that by doing so on a campus consisting of thousands of students and staff we can make a significant impact for justice for the poor of this world.

More details can be found at http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/get_involved_university.htm