Measuring Change– the Heighten the Bridge campaign
Human rights campaigners have long argued that people who need social change the most must be able to see and to measure that change; in the words of the late trade union leader and PPR founder Inez McCormack “For over 30 years now I have argued for real, measurable change that people can feel, taste and touch in their daily lives”. One campaigning group in Belfast has come up with a simple and concrete, yet extremely innovative way of measuring change in relation to the issue they are trying to address – an actual physical measuring stick.
There is a serious reason behind why group members felt the need to develop this measuring stick.
Suicide and deprivation
Tragically there have been a number of deaths from the Divis Bridge in the lower Falls area of West Belfast, most recently that of a young man called Nathan Ritchie who took his own life on 29 September 2016. Family members and friends of Nathan Ritchie told the media that he had struggled with mental health issues but that fundamentally the system had failed him.
Square Cut Punt Crew members were also personally aware of a number of other attempted suicides off this bridge, and were concerned that these attempted suicides were unlikely to feature anywhere in official statistics.
Regrettably the suicide rate for Northern Ireland as a whole has increased in recent years, with 318 deaths in 2015, a 19% increase on the previous year and the highest on record. Yet for disadvantaged areas such as the Lower Falls, the rate of suicide is three times that of the regional average, a statistic that has everything to do with poverty and disadvantage. Official statistics show that the Falls electoral ward is the most disadvantaged in Northern Ireland – it has a Multiple Deprivation Measure score of 1, with 1 being the most disadvantaged and 582 the least deprived.
The higher rate of suicide in disadvantaged areas is also connected to the direct impact of the conflict and its legacy. There is no doubt that poverty, coupled with unaddressed transgenerational trauma, are both directly connected to the increasing numbers of people in disadvantaged areas such as the Lower Falls presenting with mental health problems including self-harming.
Simple and low cost preventative measures
Group member Alison Brennen explained why the group decided to campaign for the Divis Bridge to be heightened:
“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”.
The group believed that heightening the bridge would act as key preventative measure against suicide, was something that was concrete and achievable, wasn’t overly costly and was something which had been done elsewhere already.
They decided that the first bit of information they needed was in relation to the height of the Divis Bridge, and how it compared to other bridges across roadways around Belfast. In keeping with their ‘just do it’ approach they figured out that the best way to get this information was to go out and take the measurements themselves. Hence the measuring stick.
Square Cut Punt Crew take action
Armed with this stick, high viz jackets and hard hats group members measured a number of bridges and railings and found that the Divis Bridge is only 1.4metres high whereas the Grosvenor Bridge is a full metre higher at 2.4metres. They have also drawn attention to the fact that a visible feature of the Lower Falls area is the high 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.
Square Cut Punt Crew member Francine Trainor spoke of the anger among group members at the findings of their survey:
“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 has been done to stop people jumping off the bridge and losing their lives”.
Francine also noted that this issue had been raised several years ago, in the aftermath of another tragic death of the bridge, and that commitments had been made by a range of agencies to heighten the bridge, yet no action had been taken:
“ what will it take for the railings to be heightened, another life to be lost?”
The group has questioned how such low railings can be justified on the Divis Bridge given the much higher rates of suicide in that surrounding area. They also want answers as to why the Divis Bridge railing is much lower than any of the bridges nearby.
The Square Cut Punt Crew’s Heighten the Bridge campaign fits perfectly with the government’s stated commitments and plans to tackle suicide. The Executive’s suicide prevention strategy ‘Protect Life 2’, currently out for consultation, recognises the need to restrict access to the means of suicide at high risk locations and as such includes an action around the use of physical barriers at so called ‘hot spot’ locations.
Although only a few months old the Heighten the Bridge campaigners have already employed a range of effective campaign tactics including a public petition, use of mainstream and social media, lobbying local politicians, use of Freedom of Information legislation to get information including on costs attached to heightening existing bridges and the use of action research, represented by their measuring stick.
Support to date
To date they have secured political support from a number of MLAs including Fra McCann and Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin and Nichola Mallon SDLP, as well as the support of mental health and suicide prevention and awareness groups.
The Heighten the Bridge campaign has called on the Department for Infrastructure, and in the continued absence of a Minister, on that Department’s Permanent Secretary, Mr. Peter May to move without delay to heighten the Divis Bridge.
To support the Heighten the Bridge campaign click on the following link http://www.petitionbuzz.com/petitions/squarecutpuntcrew
Please also take a moment to share this petition link on your social media platforms.
 Many city governments around the world have taken initiative in treating suicide as a public health issue by constructing suicide barrier nets on suicide hotspot bridges as a prevention tactic. These locations include Muenster Cathedral Terrace in Bern, Switzerland (Reisch & Michel, 2005), Fall Creek Gorge bridges in Ithaca, New York (Doherty, 2011), and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California (Gross, 2015).