The campaign by the Square Cut Punt Crew to have the Divis/Westlink Bridge railings heightened as a suicide prevention measure has advanced over recent months. 

An awareness raising walk organised by the Square Cut Punt Crew in early April 2017 to highlight the need for this safety measure put their campaign firmly into the public eye and forced the Department for Infrastructure to publicly defend its failure to date to raise the railings.

The group’s walk from the Grosvenor Bridge to the Divis Street Bridge on Thursday 6 April drew significant media coverage, including by U105, NVTV the Belfast Telegraph and the  Andersonstown News.

The Lower Falls area of Belfast, where the Divis Westlink Bridge is located , is recognised as the most disadvantaged area in Northern Ireland, with a Multiple Deprivation Measure score of 1 (1 being the most deprived and 582 the least).  In direct correlation with these deep seated levels of poverty and disadvantage, the rate of suicide in that area is three times the regional average.

Tragically there have been a number of deaths as a result of suicide from the Divis Street Bridge, most recently of a young man called Nathan Ritchie who took his own life on 29 September 2016. Family members and friends of Nathan’s told the media that while he had struggled with mental health issues that fundamentally the system had failed him.

Square Cut Punt Crew members were also personally aware of other people who had attempted to take their own lives from this bridge and were concerned that these attempted suicides were unlikely to feature anywhere in the official statistics:

we knew that there had been a couple of incidents where people had jumped or attempted to jump, so you have to wonder why the railing ( at Divis Bridge) is so low. If it was a bit higher it might just stop somebody from taking their own life.  If you can just stop somebody for 30 seconds they might just reconsider”  (Alison Brennen, group member)

Having decided to find out for themselves what height the various bridges across the Westlink were, the group was angered to find out that at only 1.4 metres, the Divis Bridge railings were a metre lower than the nearby Grosvenor Road bridge railings. They also drew attention to the fact that a very visible physical feature of the Lower Falls area is the number of protective and security fences and railings, mainly in place to protect property or to prevent anti-social behaviour, rather than to protect life:

it got us very angry to realise that property is more important than human life to those in charge. Railings around bins in the area are even higher than those on the Divis Bridge. In the past year spiked railings have been put up to stop bonfires being lit, but nothing is being done to stop people jumping off the bridge and losing their lives”.  (Francine Trainor, group member)

In response to the group’s action on 6 May, the Department for Infrastructure issued a statement to the media, indicating that the Divis Bridge ‘met national standards for all public road bridges’. They also stated that ‘while engineering solutions may provide part of the answer by restricting access, in isolation they not address the underlying problem and have the potential to reinforced the association of bridges with suicide attempts”.

This statement from the Department has raised more questions than it answers for the group, particularly in light of the actions assigned to the Department for Infrastructure under the draft Protect Life 2 Suicide Prevention Strategy. Questions include:

1.       If, as the Department claims, the Divis Bridge parapets meet national standards, why is that bridge a metre lower than the Grosvenor Road bridge parapets?

2.       Whether or not the Divis Bridge parapets meet national standards, if people are losing their lives from this bridge, why will the Department not take the necessary measures to remove this risk?

3.       If the Department for Infrastructure recognises that restricting access ‘may provide part of the answer’ ( to preventing deaths by suicide from bridges) why does  it not move to undertake this action that sits within its area of responsibility, while working with partner agencies to put in place those other measures deemed as necessary?

4.       How does the Department’s stated position that  heightening the parapets has ‘the potential to reinforce the association of bridges with suicide attempts’ align with the Department’s responsibility under Protect Life 2 to ‘explore options for reducing risk of suicide at high risk locations including the Foyle Riverfront and bridges’ ?

5.       The Department for Infrastructure has stated that it “has worked with other agencies to facilitate the introduction of measures at ‘sites identified as particularly problematic’ and that consideration is already being given to the Westlink corridor”.  What criteria does the Department use to identify roadway sites ‘as particularly problematic’ and what does it mean when it says ‘consideration is being given to the Westlink corridor’?

To date the Square Cut Punt Crew has secured over 1000 signatures in support of its campaign plus significant local political support, including from MLAs Fra McCann and Mairtin Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin, Gerry Carroll, People Before Profit and Nichola Mallon SDLP.

In the continued absence of a Minister responsible, the Square Cut Punt Crew is calling on the Permanent Secretary Department for Infrastructure, Mr. Peter May to move without delay to heighten the Divis Bridge railings.

To support the Heighten the Bridge campaign click on the following link

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