Willie O’Dea doubles down on populism and misinformation when leadership is needed to enable active travel for all ages

— What O’Dea labels as “harebrained” and “counterproductive” actually solid interventions which help everyone from children to 70-year-olds to safely cycle around cities.

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: I’ve had to write some articles that I’ve never thought I would, like the one last year with the headline: ‘The Government isn’t coming to get your car… so, why is an Irish Times columnist acting like it’s possible?’

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Willie O’Dea, a well-known Fianna Fáil TD for Limerick City, is smarter than thinking anybody has some kind of plan for a forced reduction in car ownership. There’s clearly no such plan from the Government led by his party and Fine Gael, with the Greens as a minority element.

Current policy does more for car owners to transition to electric cars than it does to help people who want to go car-free. You get a grant for an electric car charger in your driveway but you’ll find it very hard to get permission for a bike shed smaller than a car anywhere at the front of a house even where there’s no rear access.

So, when O’Dea takes to writing a column in the Sunday Independent to imply there’s some kind of plan for a forced reduction in car ownership, it’s clear he’s engaging in populist rhetoric. Or many when he mentions that people are unwilling to listen, he’s actually talking about himself?

One observer mentioned on social media how he was a bit surprised by O’Dea’s response given that the TD walks around the city a lot, distances many others would drive. I’m not sure of O’Dea’s travel habits, but too many people focus on if politicians or council officials walk or cycle or not. Some of the strongest defence of the status quo of our motoring-centric streets and roads in Ireland is from councillors who walk and cycle nearly daily, and some of the worse cycling infrastructure was built by engineers who cycle.

Personalising it this much about travel habits misses the more important issue of mindsets. Some of the most substantial actions in making cities less car-dominant have come from politicians who drive their cars as their main mode of transport but understand that there’s something called the greater good. They know change is hard but still show leadership.

O’Dea then spends half the article beating around the bush with Green-bashing while avoiding getting to the point and distracting from the fact that it’s far from just the Greens who want less car-domination streets and roads. There is support — of some level — for promoting walking and cycling across all parties, including his own.

O’Dea has a lot of history with the Greens — both a decade ago and more recently. So, as well as it just being populist about blaming the Greens for anything to do with the environment, it’s likely O’Dea is playing out personal beef on this too.

The article is really about O’Dea being sensitive to criticism after he mounted a campaign against what he would term as an “anti-motorist road traffic plan”, but what is really a mild enough traffic calming measure. As a type of self-defence to further criticism, he labels critics “self-appointed moral champions” — a nice way to try to defend populism.

Limerick City and County Council had planned a three-week trial of anti-rat running filtered permeability on Bellfield Gardens, a street near Limerick city centre. As these things go, three months is short enough for a trial to let things bed down. So, three weeks already sounds like a compromise.

As with similar plans for modal filters in places like Dublin or Navan, and in different parts of Europe and North America, there was strong opposition to the proposals. This is the norm as change is hard. The reality is that once these measures are trialled, people like them and support increases. But O’Dea spearheaded a campaign against the trial and it has now been at least deferred.

He called it a plan to “close more local roads to motorised traffic” when only through traffic would be disallowed, and every location accessible by car would remain accessible by car.

He goes on to claim that “it would have only succeeded in forcing the residents of the area to take longer detours to get to or from their own homes.” This is simply not true, both Irish and international experience shows that such measures improve communities and encourage people out of their cars, but also allow anybody who wants to keep driving to do so.

The TD went on to ask a series of rhetorical questions such as “Would it have forced anyone out of their cars on to public transport?” and “What good does it contribute to the cause of tackling carbon emissions and reducing global warming?” The answer to both is it’s not about forcing anybody out of their cars but rather making walking and cycling safer and more attractive.

Cycle paths and footpaths are visible active travel measures. But filtering out rat running and other thought traffic from residential streets is just as important in enabling walking and cycling. Filtering allows motorists to access all locations but makes streets safer and more attractive for walking and cycling.

It’s part of what enables everybody from children to people 70-years-old plus to cycle safely across Dutch cities. It also makes communities more liveable.

After stirring up misinformation on the project, O’Dea’s targets in his Sunday Independent article were the local campaigners who want a safer, more attractive and greener Limerick. And, more so, those who dared to challenge him. Strangely enough, some of those who criticised him the most are members of other parties but this doesn’t fit into O’Dea’s simplified narrative.

He asks sarcastically what was the “mature and considered” response from local activists but does so in an article where he bashes not just measures aimed at reducing car use but also a phase-out of oil and gas burners which climate scientists strongly support.

O’Dea wrote: “Any other group, particularly ones less driven by zealotry and intransigence, would have stopped to consider the community’s genuine and real concerns, and learned the importance of finding ways to bring the public with them.” But no self-awareness that it’s his job as a TD to bring people along rather than cheerlead the opposition to sensible measures that will not just improve the environment, but also make people’s lives better.

He rants further that activists “must bring people along with them” — while, it’s true that anybody looking for change must try to bring people along with them, they also need to call out politicians who are blocking progress.

It’s also true that TDs and councillors with the mindset of O’Dea must get on board and then bring people with them.

By labelling projects “harebrained” and “pointless and counterproductive” because you are not willing to even try such measures for three weeks is proof that you are indeed a populist dinosaur. If politicians don’t want to be seen that way, it’s up to them alone to go beyond pettiness and show some leadership.

1 comments

  1. I reckon to use terms like “populism and misinformation” is being extremely generous to Willie O’Dea. I’d use the terms “bull” and “lies,” but that’s because I have heard so much bull and lies from over the years. He famously accused a Sinn Fein guy of running a Brothel in Limerick approx. 15 years back. It was totally untrue, made it up. But he was actually recorded saying it, so, after a scandal he then had to make a retraction. He is the most devious politician in the country. He is not “anti” anyone as much as he is “pro” big-shots. But why are the S-Indo giving him space? They support his perspective.

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