— Minister drops social distancing plan as NPHET warns of public complacency.
— “This decision means every single route in park becomes a rat run” — Green TD.
A move on Friday morning to re-open the side gates to the Phoenix Park in Dublin was made by Patrick O’Donovan, the Minister of State at the Office of Public Works, according to sources.
While not being clear that he was behind the opening of the park, the Minister O’Donovan claimed on national radio on Friday morning that he wanted to see traffic reduction in the park. But he said “whether we like it or not” that the park is commuter route from Longford, Westmeath, Meath and parts of Dublin.
The sources — who have knowledge of the decision making process — confirmed to this website that the Minister went against the advice of his officials at the OPW.
At the start of last week, on June 28, the OPW issued a press release which stated: “The Office of Public Works (OPW) today announced that it will maintain the closure of the peripheral gates to the Phoenix Park in order to facilitate the significant increase in use of the park by walkers and cyclists of all ages in recent months.”
Within the press release, OPW Commissioner John McMahon said: “The Park is Dublin’s ‘green lung’ and OPW is determined to ensure that the Park is a safe, quiet, green space for our visitors, where flora and fauna thrives and where visitors’ health and wellbeing can be enhanced through experiencing the natural environment in the Park. With this in mind, reducing the volume of ‘through-traffic’ is critical and maintaining safe, quiet, open spaces for pedestrians and cyclists to enjoy is a key priority for OPW.”
But just over a week later, at 3pm on Thursday this week, a new press release was issued outlining how the gates would be opened.
What was outlined by the sources, has confirmed to IrishCycle.com that a wording using by O’Donovan on the Today show on RTÉ Radio One this morning was at best misleading. Attempts were made to obtain a comment from the Fine Gael Minister on Friday evening, but no reply was forthcoming to questions before the publication of this article.
A petition calling on the park to be shut to rat running while allowing access for motorists using the park, which was set up by Green Party Cllr Michael Pidgeon, has now been signed by nearly 7,500 people. While there was also significance opposition, especially by some residents of Dublin 15, to restrictions on motoring access in the park and the Minister said this morning that car commuters were angry at the restrictions which were in place.
The OPW minister took the action on rolling back on COVID-19 social distancing measures on same day National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) warned of public complacency. The first day of the reintroduction of cars into more areas of the park has already resulted in illegal parking on the park’s already narrow footpaths:
Day one of restored car access to the #PhoenixPark.
The side gates are open to cars less than twelve hours and this is what's going on in a space that was calmly car-free just yesterday.
This is why we can't have nice things, evidently. pic.twitter.com/MRAEoWEaMQ
— Michael Pidgeon (@Pidge) July 10, 2020
On Radio One this morning, when presenter Sarah McInerney asked the Minister why the decision was made, Minister O’Donovan said: “The decision was made after discussion within the the Office of Public Works in relation to a number of issues really… over the last number of days and weeks the volume of traffic which was built up in the adjoining areas has gone up a lot and the OPW is very conscious of this and we realise that especially in the western area of the park that there has been awful lot of traffic jams.”
This is contradicted by sources who outline that while it was because of presure from motorists, the move was purely a political decision by Minister O’Donovan.
He continued: “So the the decision was made to reopen the gates to find out what impact the reopening was going to have and particularly was the traffic congestion around the park completely on the closing of the gates or are there other issues,” said the Minister.
He added: “I’m like everybody, I would love to see the Phoenix Park maintained for park use only, but I’m also very conscious of the fact that the western side of Dublin has grown up around the park and, whether we like it or not, for an awful lot of people it is a commuter route. It’s a commuter route from Longford, from Westmeath, from Meath, from parts of Dublin.”
Minister O’Donovan said that he wants “proper consultation” which “will begin in the coming weeks”.
McInerney asked “did anybody prevail on you?” and in the same breath asked did Jack Chambers (Fianna Fáil), Minister of State at the Department of Finance, discuss it with him. Minister O’Donovan said: “No, no… no, they didn’t actually…”.
However, on Thursday evening, a Fianna Fáil councillor for Castleknock, Cllr Howard Mahony, said on Facebook: “I have been informed by my colleague Jack Chamber TD following a decision this afternoon by Patrick O Donovan Minister in the Department with the responsibility for the OPW that all of the Phoenix Park gates that were recently closed will reopen from tomorrow…”
O’Donovan said the OPW has received emails and calls both for and against the gates.
Despite the reopening of the gates happening without consultation and happening overnight less than 24 hours after the OPW posted a link to a new press release to Twitter and Facebook, the Minister said the gates were opened now rather than doing it “probably in haste” at the end of August.
Members of the public outlined on Twitter how the atmosphere has changed in the park, for example:
Vroom vroom the track is back! pic.twitter.com/AIuD3ivcyA
— Mike Banim (@MikeBanim) July 10, 2020
O’Donovan said: “I would love to see the traffic volume reduced in the park, I’m committed to work to see how we do that. But we can’t just ignore the fact that the traffic volumes are growing as the economy reopens and we also can’t ignore the fact that by the end of August the schools are going to be reopened and we would then be dragged into a decision, probably in haste, to make, to open the gates without knowing what impact it’s going to have in the longer term.”
O’Donovan said that “over time” the traffic needs to be reduced “but we need to be realistic”.
“I don’t have a back garden”
On the same radio show, Neasa Hourigan TD (Green Party) said “I’m so dispointed and completely puzzled” given that the OPW has just put out a statement stating the gates would remain closed.
“Like a lot of people in inner city Dubin, I don’t have a back garden, and I have three kids under 8 and parks like the Phoenix Park is our back garden. We really experienced during the pandemic the value of having green space in our communities because we were kind of stuck where we were,” said Hourigan.
“For me, my 8-year-old us blind, she is registered blind and is hard of hearing. And for the first time every — and we go to the Phoenix Park all the time — I could let her hand go in the Phoenix Park because I felt there was not traffic roaring past me all the time.
She added: “It’s not that there was no traffic in the Phoenix Park. There were gates open [for cars] anyway, it was accessible, but this decision what it means is that every single route in Phoenix Park becomes a rat run.”
Hourigan said that nobody was asking for cars to be fully removed from the park but she had an issue with it being used as a commuter rat run and that traffic in the park needed to be restrained.
When asked by McInerney if she agreed if an emergency measure could not continue indefinitely, Hourigan said that it would be fantastic if the pandemic was over and that the OPW statement issued last week had referenced social distancing.
On Thursday, Fine Gael Senator and former Castleknock councillor Emer Currie — who had campaiged for the opening of the gates, said: “The OPW has committed to a full consultation on a Phoenix Park Traffic Management Plan. I see this as a commitment to get the balance right in the Park. It’s a park first & foremost so we need a transport strategy with new ideas to curb the 9mln cars using it every year.”
Also on Thursday, North inner city Fine Gael councillor Cllr Ray McAdam said: “While consultation on traffic management plan is welcome, I would have preferred the #statusquo to have been maintained until then.”
Minister Roderic O’Gorman, a Dublin West Green Party TD on Friday night said: “Surprised by OPW announcement that it’s reopening all the Phoenix Park gates immediately. Last week, they told me that reducing the volume of through traffic and maintaining safe, quiet spaces for pedestrians & cyclist is a key priority for them.”
“It’s good that local resident with have the chance to discuss with the OPW, Fingal County Council, and Dublin City Council how the park can be best enjoyed. But the last few months have transformed how we see the Park, and we cannot go back to business as usual,” he said.
He added: “But we can’t allow momentum to slip. I have written to Minister O’Donovan requesting clarity on the timeframe, membership and aims of the public consultation that he has announced.”