Rural communities throughout Ireland are concerned about their post office closing.
The Irish Postmasters’ Union commissioned research into the future viability of the post office network.
In 2011, the post office network in Ireland consisted of 1,156 post offices at various locations across the country. Of these post offices, 1,099 are deemed to be sub-post offices. These are managed by independent self-employed retailers, who act as a distribution facility for An Post, the semi-state body responsible for delivery of postal services throughout the State.
This research was carried out by Grant Thornton and revealed that between 2006 and 2009, 209 post offices closed in Ireland, resulting in a decline of over 15 per cent in the network size.
Grant Thornton warned that, unless a strategic plan was put in place for sustaining our rural post office network, up to a third of these post offices could close in a relatively short time.
The post office network in under further threat after the partnership agreed in 2013 between An Post and Tesco for the provision of postal services under the ‘Post and Pay’ banner.
As a result of this new partnership, at certain Tesco stores, a consumer can avail of all postal services apart from receiving social welfare payments and managing their savings.
It is important to note that Tesco staff providing the postal services are not vetted or trained like the staff in your local post office, nor are they bound by the Official Secrets Act.
Our postmasters and their staff are trusted servants in our community, providing 1.7 million customers each week over five and a half days with valuable services, such as welfare payments, mails services, banking, foreign exchange, investment products, Postfone and other services.
Many people in rural areas, correctly in my view, fear that the closure of their local post office will badly affect the older and more vulnerable members of their community.
Forty per cent of our population live in Rural Ireland. Many of the post offices that service this population are located in remote areas, where access to public transport was poor or non-existent. The challenges and costs for these communities of getting to other post offices can be considerable.
Our post office network provides access to essential social and economic services and provides a focal point and social hub in our rural communities. The rural post office provides a meeting place for members of our community. Our rural post office is more than a purely commercial entity.
In many cases, the rural post office provides the only shop in their villages and, when their in-shop post office is closed, this can have a significant effect on the viability of their shop.
The closure of some of our rural post offices is also having an impact on some of our small businesses in rural areas, with many spending more time and cost travelling to other post offices in other areas in order to avail of parcel post and other services.
This coalition government needs to recognise and acknowledge that our post office network has wider social benefits than just providing access to postal services. The social value of our rural post office network should be evaluated by government. It is my belief that the results of this evaluation would confirm that rural communities place a high value on their rural post office.
No rural post office should be closed until a proper economic and social analysis on the effect on communities is completed.
Fine Gael and Labour, on page 62 of the Programme for Government 2011-2016, gave the following commitment in relation to our postal service:
‘A universal postal service is an essential public service, in particular for rural communities and those disadvantaged communities affected by digital divide and we will ensure that the network of post offices around the country is maintained and that communities have access to adequate postal services in their locality.’
The current government policy is forcing An Post to operate on a commercially viable basis without any recognition of the social policy role played by Post Offices throughout the country.
The government does not have a clear plan for the future, as to what post offices can and should deliver.
I believe we need to encourage fresh thinking on keeping our rural post offices open.
Our post office network could be used by consumers for the payment of motor tax renewals, drivers licence renewals, household taxes, water charges, credit union payments and lodgements. For example, the Irish Postmasters Union has said that €60 million could potentially be saved over a five-year period by the post office offering the motor tax renewal service.
I agree with Professor Roy Kinsella’s proposal for a strategic alliance of the post office network and our credit unions.
Professor Kinsella argued that such an alliance could provide a radical new model for delivering financial services and would help offset the contraction that is taking place with bank branch closures all over the country.
An Post have claimed in the past of the difficulty in getting people to apply to be considered for the position of post master.
The option of providing postal services could be opened up to co-operatives, community development and local development companies in rural areas.
These community bodies are legal entities, with managers, staff and boards of directors or management committees at the helm providing services to the same community as the local post office.
Where no such local community development structure exists, another option could be a community post office co-operative or a post office community management company limited by guarantee without having a share capital could be established with those who are interested becoming its members.
An Post could transfer the running of the post office to the new co-operative or post office community management company. The shareholders of the co-operative or members of the company would elect the board to manage the local post office. Staff who had worked for the previous postmaster could transfer and be employed by the new entity, subject to agreement.
There could be a win-win situation for all parties with local jobs protected and postal services being provided in rural communities.
John Healy published a famous book, titled ‘No One Shouted Stop’ in 1968 about his home town of Charlestown in County Mayo where he wrote about its economic decline.
We should all now shout stop to our government and An Post and keep our rural post offices open.