In October 2015, The Gown revealed plans by Queen’s University to demolish the Students’ Union, to be replaced by an “Integrated Student Centre”. The independent student newspaper at Queen’s was to expose a story which was to confirm much rumour and speculation around the student body; yes- the Students’ Union as we know it will soon be reduced to a pile of rubble and faded memories. QUB’s Information Compliance Unit issued a response to a Freedom of Information request submitted in July, confirming rumours which had circulated amongst the student body – the building is indeed falling into a state of disrepair. Originally built in 1967, the site currently caters for a 6,000 person student population. Now with a population of over 25,000, Queen’s Students’ Union struggles to cater for the surge in student numbers.
The story has gained increased prominence following the release of a petition online calling on music fans and students alike to “Save Mandela Hall”. In less than two days the campaign has secured over 7,000 signatures as the petition continues to receive greater prominence on social media.
Reaction to the petition has been mixed amongst the student body at Queen’s. Whilst some welcome the new Integrated Student Centre, others have instead displayed a marked suspicion as to the fate of the much loved Mandela Hall. That fate, according to some, has been determined under the shroud of intransigence from University management. The perceived ‘opaque’ nature of decision making by those ‘across the road’ has attracted much frustration, and can be felt in the wording of the petition, which follows:
“A campaign to save Mandela Hall (and its sister venues The Speakeasy, Bunatee Bar and Bar Sub) – some of NI’s most iconic music venues and student entertainment hubs – from potential demolition by the management of Queen’s University Belfast as part of a new proposal to be replaced with a ‘Student Centre’. All without prior consultation with the student body (please feel free to voice your displeasure to firstname.lastname@example.org), whom this decision will affect the most – as well as tens of thousands of event attendees across a multitude of genres from all over Northern Ireland and beyond. Not only does this decision (if it goes ahead) deprive QUB students and Belfast as a whole of such a renowned event venue – it threatens hundreds of jobs within the Students’ Union and its venues. Please support us to prevent the possible closure of a venue that has hosted massive student club nights, comedy shows, DJ sets, live concerts and everything in between by some of the biggest names in the business”.
For many, Mandela Hall conjures memories of musical excellence across the years. The smooth skinned fresher will applaud the soundsystem and cheap vodka redbulls. The most hardened, grey-haired raver will recall sweating profusely as a reveller of Shine, an institution in the house and techno scene since Pete Tong was a baby. Aside from the potential loss of one of Northern Ireland’s best loved music venues, student concerns at this point surround the potential decantation of student democracy. To some, the change of name to “Integrated Student Centre” suggests the loss of the University’s Students’ Union – a pillar of political representation and student activism in the institution. The Gown reported late last year that any amendments to Students’ Union constitution must be approved by QUB Senate following consultation with Students’ Union staff, including Sabbatical Officers and Management Team members. Despite assurances of fair representation for students and concert-goers, the campaign to save Mandela Hall has articulated much frustration directed at University and SU staff alike. Due to the petitioner’s role as a member of staff at the University, the person wishes to retain their anonymity.
“Essentially this is part of a proposal by QUB to demolish and replace the existing Students’ Union with a Student Centre (which no doubt would have superb facilities), however would include nothing entertainment/venue wise other than a Clement’s-sized cafe/bar. This is what concerns us given the wide variety of events currently hosted in the Students’ Union venues, whether student-based or not. This has been in the works for months (since at least June 2015) and is being pushed by QUB management. This information has not been made easily accessible by the student body or public as a whole which is the reason for this campaign. We are fully aware such plans were distributed by The Gown in October, however we have been made aware that the current entertainment venue structure is not how QUB would prefer to continue, and we feel that this issue should be brought to the attention of a wider audience”.
As the campaign continues to gain momentum, Queen’s University Students’ Union President Caoimhe McNeill released a late in the day statement on behalf of the Union, drawing to the “rumour, speculation and misinformation” rising from the petition:
“The conversation about the need for redevelopment of the Students’ Union began in 2011, based on feedback from you, our members, in several annual surveys and from Clubs and Societies. The feedback highlighted that major investment and improvement is needed to meet the needs and expectations of current and future students”. McNeill continued her statement, challenging claims made by the petitioner that decisions had already been made. “No formal decisions have been made about what might be included in any new development. The discussion on size and shape of office space, social space, commercial space, campaigning space, Clubs and Societies resources and entertainment venues is still very much ongoing… any major or final proposals will go to your elected Student Councillors for their consideration”.
One aspect of the petition which has attracted controversy is the inclusion of McNeill’s email address in the petition, encouraging signatories to “voice their displeasure”. When challenged on this action, the petitioner defended the “understandably controversial move”: “given the lack of information by the Students’ Union Council, headed by the SU President, to the rest of the student body – nevermind the countless more who attend events in all the venues, about this issue (which has been ongoing for several months now) regarding the Union, I think it was warranted”.
Despite some conflict over the proposed move, the connection felt to Mandela Hall is clear to see. Playing host to a secret Radiohead gig in the early 90’s. the hall has been a stalwart for music fans across Northern Ireland for decades. However, it is what occurs on the floors above Mandela Hall which for some take priority on this issue. A hub of activism and political organising, the Students’ Union has been the birthplace of many progressive movements in this state – ranging from the People’s Democracy of times past, right up the the current movement for global fossil fuel divestment.
Yes, we all have special memories of the institution that is Mandela Hall. But the true question remains – what will this “Integrated Student Centre” provide for the young activists of Queen’s University?
Niall Coleman is the Deputy Editor of the Gown and an activist with People Before Profit.