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Features Investigates: RAG Week and the Community

When you likely read this, it will be the middle of Raise and Give Week. An annual event to raise money for various charities, it is also seen, by some, as an excuse for drinking, debauchery and vandalism. There are three constants to RAG Week, it seems: money is raised for some fantastic causes, house parties spill out onto the streets of College Road, and perturbed residents ring up the likes of Neil Prendeville and PJ Coogan to complain about ‘those feckin students’. But are they justified? I attended a coffee morning in the Aula Maxima last week to try and find out.

I first spoke to UCC Students’ Union President Martin Scally. Martin told me about the three RAG Charities this year: Friendly Call Cork, a phone service aimed at anyone who may feel isolated or alone, St. Vincent de Paul and the Meningitis Research Centre. “You have your standard buckets, which will be around college and campus during the week, but then Ben Dunlea, our Entertainments Officer, is after setting up a Go-Fund Me page, which you can find on our Facebook page,” said Mr.Scally, elaborating on how to donate to the charities. Every year the Students’ Union raises upwards of €20,000 for charity, splitting that fund among the three chosen charities.

However, anti-social behaviour among students has recently taken a central role in the community. Last semester, during the SU’s Christmas Day event, several bars were closed for hours by An Gardaí Síochána amid reports of broken windows, massive house parties and bins being set on fire. I asked Martin what the SU had done so that RAG wouldn’t be a repeat of Christmas Day: “We’re actually taking all the steps we could possibly think of, and we’ve actually gone above and beyond. The student fine, for example, has gone up from €40 to €50, and there’s an absolutely zero tolerance policy with the Guards, which we accept, we have no qualms about it at all, we’re putting up signs and posters along college road too. You know, students might think in the back of their minds that they could get fined for drink or anti-social behaviour, and we’re putting up very visual signs that will be in their face so that when they leave their homes they think ‘Okay, this is real, I can actually get fined’ and you can actually get put in jail.”

But what do the Guards themselves think about RAG, and university students’ place in the community? Sergeant Stewart Philpott, Head of Community Policing for Cork City, spoke to me about RAG Week. He was optimistic about the levels of anti-social behaviour across the last few years. “Well it’s my second year now being involved directly with UCC in regards to events. I wouldn’t say I’ve seen a noticeable rise [in anti-social behaviour] but what I have seen is a rise in cooperation between different stakeholders involved, ourselves, local residents, businesses and UCC itself.

“I think the college has taken some concrete steps, introducing a fining system for anti-social behaviour, but also this event this morning, engaging with the local community. And I suppose the residents feel their issues are being listened to and they have a chance to air their voices and speak to people involved, with the SU and the college authorities.” Sergeant Philpott had some advice for students who want to enjoy Raise & Give Week to stay out of trouble: “Basically behave well, be mindful of other residents and other people using the college. Not everyone will want to take part in the festivities but just be sensible and be safe.”

But what toll does this anti-social behaviour take on the residents within our community? I spoke to Angela, a woman who’s been living in the area for the last few years. “I’ve only lived in the area for the past two years because I was abroad for the last twenty years, and it’s pretty bad I would think. I mean, on Thursday nights I don’t normally go out because it’s just too rough in the neighbourhood. And I’ve small children, so I just avoid the area on Thursdays and Fridays with them, because they’re just intimidated.” Taken aback, I asked Angela to clarify if that was just on weeks like Raise and Give, or was it every week: “I would think it’s pretty much any Thursday evening, and then on Friday morning the pavements are covered in vomit and my children are left thinking ‘Why is everything looking so horrible, what’s going on?’ and how do you explain to young children about drunken students?”

I asked Angela what she thought the college and Students’ Union should do about these problems: “I don’t know, it’s a tough one. I’m not so old that I don’t remember being a student myself and once you start drinking, any kind of respect or responsibility goes out the window, so I’m not really sure what the solution is. Ideally I think there should be some sort of policing forces sponsored by the college that goes around the streets and stops the most excessive behaviour but I’m not sure if that can happen or not.” What Angela is describing is the Student Community Support service (SCS), a group organised by the Students’ Union to patrol the area around the university. While SCS’ main goal isn’t to stop excessive behaviour, necessarily (it is to assist students who may be in difficulty, drunk students’ etc.), the fact that a resident, who does live in a central part of the community, doesn’t know of their existence is telling that maybe the Students’ Union should do more with SCS.

I also asked Angela if she felt that the more troubling side of RAG overshadowed the charitable aspect of the week, to which she said “I didn’t realise there was a charity aspect in the neighbourhood, we just see the bad stuff.”

After the events of Christmas Day, there’s been a feeling on campus that RAG Week may be in jeopardy. And it wouldn’t be the first time a college RAG Week was cancelled: several years ago NUI Galway banned the Students’ Union’s RAG Week. This didn’t stop students from celebrating the week, as every year there is trouble with students partying in Galway city centre. As there are no official SU events, no money whatsoever is made for charities like in other Universities. I spoke to Gary Mulcahy, the Chair of Campus Watch and the Community Relations Officer for the University about if we’re heading for a situation similar to Galway; “Well I think RAG weeks needs to be reviewed every year, and we do that and we need to make changes and involve the community a lot more in what we do, if we do get rid of RAG week, which I don’t think is a good idea, it could create a worse situation so I don’t necessarily think that’s a good idea but it’s certainly something we need to review going forward and it’s certainly not my call either, it’s up to the SU, the university on a whole and the president to make those decisions.”

This RAG Week clearly needs to come off without a hitch for there to be another one next year. The University has already proven that they will not tolerate awful behaviour for the sake of tradition, having already cancelling next year’s Christmas Day event. As Sergeant Philpott put it, behave, and be mindful of those around you – and don’t forget to put some money in the charity buckets, if you can.