Instead of constantly criticising public officials for mistakes and misdemeanours, let us try a different approach. Let us try recognition, praise and encouragement when they get it right.
We should welcome the announcement of the reopening of the Phoenix Park gates by Minister of State at the Office of Public Works (OPW) Patrick O'Donovan, who acknowledged public anger - both about the closure and the lack of consultation.
It is an important story about an averted wrong in which everybody wins - just by doing the right thing. It exemplifies trying to find a place of accommodation for people with different views that need to co-exist. The reputations of the minister, the OPW and the local communities are all enhanced as progress is made towards a better world - in tiny steps - by trying to re-cast a plan that will meet the needs of a wider population than vocal special interests.
The details of the wrongs and rights are immaterial. This local bun fight needs to be seen in a wider context. It provides us with a perfect example of how to right so many of the growing wrongs that threaten the fabric of our society today. Though local, this controversy has lessons with national relevance.
It is about how we decide to use and share our public spaces - the streets, roads, paths, parks, greens, and beaches that professional urbanists and planners grandly call the public realm. All over Ireland public realm initiatives are under way - many citing either provisions to facilitate social distancing or attempts to increase opportunities for business after Covid closure.
Many more are being used to try to revitalise smaller towns and villages.
Working in the public realm is not easy. Professionals in this field need no reminding about the delicacy of the social and business ecology of the high street and smaller settlements. Here small connections can either be amplified to wonderful effect - or unintentionally severed with disastrous results.
More importantly most settlements are also communities - many of us live above or next to the public realm in lanes, streets, or nearby residential areas. Changes to the public realm can send out ripples of unintended consequence. This seems to have happened when traffic from Phoenix Park was displaced into nearby residential areas.
Successful public realm projects require attention to a bewildering array of technical considerations. The long list of required expertise includes pedestrian connectivity, vehicular safety, parking, cycling, public transport, public order, drainage, ecology, vegetation, maintenance and so on. To add to the complexity, the public realm is also the context for most retail, commerce, passive recreation, hospitality, street culture and tourism.
As if not already overburdened, the public realm also accommodates a wide range of transport - public and private in everything from heavy goods vehicles through trams, cars, bikes, and electric scooters - as well as pedestrians.
In the old days planning of the public realm was regarded a natural extension of road engineering while operations were left to the expertise, experience (and patience) of the gardai. That time is now far away. Today the planning, implementation and management of the public realm is recognised all over the world as requiring sophisticated multidisciplinary teams led by urban designers, architects working with civil and transportation engineers. These teams carry out their work by using painstaking techniques to obtain community consent to ensure benefits and costs are proportionate and fair.
To this complexity we must add the security of rights of property, access, and personal freedom. Above all else, the public realm is public, held in trust by public bodies for the use and benefit of all. Comprehensive safeguards control the sale or transfer of public property, however, there are fewer controls on who gets to decide how the public realm is used.
It is arguable that enthusiasm to implement new urbanist visions of the public realm, if badly planned, could lead to a loss or curtailment of freedom for other groups. Those romantic tables on the street will soon be seen to need wind breaks, rain shelters and security guards. How much of our scarce and small footpaths will we allow to be privatised? Who will we cede them to? Will we ever get them back? Who will get priority along a narrow coastal or river path - the burly, fast-moving cyclist or the dawdling children?
Delicate things like children, nature and urban wanderers have weak voices compared to highly organised, articulate groups like vintners and cyclists. The strong can too easily form alliances with public bodies who want to be seen to be decisive. Everyone needs to be vigilant to control the emergence of the resultant authoritarian reflex of DAD (Decide, Announce, Defend). That protection needs constant vigilance - usually by brave members of the public.
Drawing attention to this complexity highlights the dangers of promising to only meet the values, needs or rights of one group. This danger is particularly acute at this time when small, but highly vocal single-interest groups can use online activism to distort debates. They can easily mislead the media to bully ministers and officials to give priority - and usually exclusivity - to their value systems. In these intolerant times it is noteworthy that those who shout loudest listen least. Co-existence and co-operation, compromise and mutual accommodation are anathema to the righteous.
Thoughtful people around the world are starting to speak out about the growing dangers of this type of righteous activism.
Examples include authors like JK Rowling, John Banville, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood, who recently publicly objected to the weakening of open debate and a tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.
We are living in an age in which such intolerance is costing people their jobs as well as their reputations. Ideological intolerance was the reason for the recent resignation letter of the opinion editor in The New York Times. It makes sad reading coming so soon after last month's similar resignation of the paper's editorial page editor. These people are being driven out by their own, often younger, 'woke' colleagues. There should be no excuse for this in the free press which should be a citadel from where the mob is denounced. Bravely impartial truth is the only condition upon which press privileges are based.
Returning to the public realm, it is important because it is the real-world arena where these competing values and needs are concretely put in place. Success is when everybody is heard, failure is when one group 'wins'. There can be no monopolies.
It is unfair to single out Minister of State O'Donovan. It is equally important to praise the OPW officials who were flexible and open enough to reconsider. However, the most important people to praise are all of those ordinary people in communities who collectively and individually took the time to stand up, stand out and protest against these loss of liberties by public bodies who are supposed to serve them.
Standing up to enemies is hard - but standing up to friends is very hard - especially in the age of cancel culture.