After a motion proposing a bridge over the River Bann, a campaign has been launched to pool local boatmen to bring cyclists and walkers across the river.
After an acrimonious debate at Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council an SDLP motion to discuss erecting a bridge and the popular tourist spot near Charlestown was defeated.
Cllr Declan McAlinden voiced ‘disgust and disappointment’ with colleagues who who voted down his motion by eight votes to 21, describing the vote as taking a ‘sectarian line’.
While many councillors from both traditions fondly recalled the old ferryman Geordie Wilson who brought people across the Bann on his ferry for many years, most unionist councillors were opposed to the footbridge.
In the public gallery at last week’s council meeting were Charlestown residents opposed to the bridge and campaigners for the bridge. After the defeat there was a heated debate outside the chamber between both factions.
Many unionist councillors had been contacted by some residents of the small village of Charlestown which sits on a road leading to the Bannfoot.
DUP Cllr Robert Smyth said residents were ‘utterly opposed’ to the proposition and claimed that any bridge would upset the ‘tranquil and peaceful settlement’. He also claimed the footbridge would cause difficulties with anti-social behaviour, drugs and litter.
He claimed there was a lack of consultation with local residents in Charlestown who, he said, have to pay for their own streetlighting. Cllr Smyth added that they were aware of the petition, which received more than 4k signatures, but claimed many of them were not from the area.
Sinn Fein Cllr Catherine Nelson pointed to a Standing Order calling on the matter to be referred to a committee. however. this was shot down after Mayor Julie Flaherty allowed a debate on the issue to continue.
Cllr McAlinden said: “This is what I didn’t want, that it would go down sectarian lines.” He refuted that there would be anti-social behaviour because of the bridge and pointed out that there is already anti-social behaviour in the village citing the theft of a life-jacket recently.
He pointed to the bridge between Tyrone and Maghery over the Blackwater as a precedent.
Cllr Smyth said: “I reject the angle that this is sectarian. I have met with residents and I would distance myself from that completely. I don’t know where that came from.”
He called for a recorded vote on the motion which stated: “The lack of a crossing for pedestrians and cyclists means a round trip of over 16 miles. Given the strong growth of cycling in the area, the completion of such a connection would greatly benefit the area.”
The motion asked that the council agree to investigate, in partnership with the statutory agencies, options for consideration and development which would reinstate access in the area, including consultation with the local community and potential users. They also asked it be referred to the appropriate committee.
After the vote Cllr McAlinden said: “The suggestion that the proposal would see an increase in antisocial behaviour, burglaries and drugs in the area is nothing more than a smokescreen.”
A group, called Bridge the Bannfoot, said they are prepared to continue the campaign. “One suggestion was to get a few volunteer boatmen out some Saturday or Sunday to transport cyclists and walkers across the river to show how many would use a possible footbridge.” They called for volunteers to contact them.