Reforms to postal service will deliver change and anger

The rural post office remains integral to society despite its unviability, writes Michael Clifford.

Reforms to postal service will deliver change and anger

The protest took place at noon on Saturday, January 21, last as the procession of tourist coaches passed by. This was in the village of Laragh, just up the road from Glendalough in Co, Wicklow. The village had just lost its post office.

On the face of it, this might look like just another village succumbing to the march of time, the withdrawal of services to urban centres.

Except over a million people pass through Laragh on a yearly basis, many of them stopping to engage with the tourist industry that has grown up around Glendalough. If a post office in such a location is to be sacrificed, what hope for those who are in the heartlands of rural Ireland?

Local TD Pat Casey set out in the Dáil the resentment felt in the community at what they saw as an inexplicable decision.

“An Post is about to close a post office in Laragh where there are 1.2 to 1.5 million visitors a year,” Casey said. “Most businesses I know would break their necks trying to get access to such a potential market. An Post, no – close the office and do it over the Christmas period so nobody will notice.”

The case of the Laragh post office highlights the sentiment that is coursing through rural Ireland. There is a belief that An Post is moving with great haste to dismantle the whole post office network. This general belief has received ballast with leaked media reports that a review of the network currently being undertaken by An Post is likely to recommend that up to 500 offices — nearly half of the total — be closed.

“There is a fear out there now,” says Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice, “that anytime a postmaster or mistress rings up An Post and says they are retiring, then that is used as an excuse to simply shut the place down, without any proper look at it.”

Maybe so. That is precisely what happened in Laragh. The postmistress was retiring and and as a result the office was shut. Since the furore over it, An Post has agreed a form of retrospective consultation. The office hasn’t reopened, but submissions have been made in respect of it. There is still no result on whether its future will be reconsidered.

Elsewhere in Wicklow, the post office in Kilmacanouge has also closed, although it is unclear whether this is a permanent development. That post office was threatened with closure in 2014, and was only kept going after a campaign by locals.

Those two examples are a microcosm of what is being experienced throughout rural Ireland. Within the next few weeks the big picture for the whole country’s post office network is expected to be unveiled.

There is a mighty battle ahead. On the one hand, the An Post semi-state company is intent on shaking up a network that has been in existence for over one hundred years, yet hardly reflects the requirements of modern day life. A large number of the existing offices are simply financially unviable. More pertinently, the footfall through many of them is little more than a trickle.

The other point of view is that large scale closures would deal a major blow to rural Ireland, a constituency that is already under siege on multiple fronts. This aspect also offers the view that the post office is far more than a financial service, but a social centre which glues together disparate elements of rural Ireland at a time when others — such as the pub — no longer perform that service.

“The people of Ireland tell us they want services in the post office and without it they’d feel abandoned,” the general secretary of the Irish Postmaster Union Ned O’Hara, said at a protest last month. “There’s been lots of research to back this up. The network is a national asset. The Government should invest in it.”

Few would disagree with the general sentiment, but there is an issue over what cost to keep the network in anything like its current guise?

Of the 1,120 post offices in the network, all but 50 are run by private contractors. A crucial question is how many of these are financially viable. The other issue is the same one that’s facing institutions like the Catholic church — who is going to replace the retirees?

It’s one thing to accuse An Post of taking advantage of retirements to close doors, but getting somebody with initiative to carry on the business is a different matter. While the existing masters and mistresses are willing to get by on relatively small income on the basis that the post office is a way of life for them and their neighbours, many are not an attractive option for budding entrepreneurs.

Some who know the industry speculate that a lot of those in unviable offices are merely hanging on to see if they can get some kind of a deal at the end of a long, declining road.

“Some are waiting for a deal,” according to one source who is not unsympathetic to the plight of those who run the offices.

“You’re in place from nine to five, five days a week and Saturday morning as well and when you work it out for some of them it comes to less than the minimum wage.

“The model that An Post use in sub post offices is crazy too. The busier your office gets, the more your salary should increase proportionately, but the rate of increase declines the busier you get. So unless you’re doing good business it’s not much of a living.”

The post office though is about more than just a business. Its unique place in rural life in particular has long been acknowledged, and many who fear for the future are perturbed that this element of its social contact is getting scant regard.

As things stand, most see the future as one of two models. The businessman Bobby Kerr chaired a government- appointed group to look into the future of the network. It delivered a report to An Post late last year which has not been published.

Leaks from the report suggest that the group has recommended the closure of around 80 post offices in order to maintain viability for the others. It also recommends extending services that are available through post offices and some state investment.

While there was initial shock among many in rural Ireland at the news, that has now been replaced by an attitude of “better the devil you know”.

Last October, An Post’s new chief executive David McRedmond took up his post and hit the ground running. The former head of TV3 is determined, as he sees it, to drag the company into the 21st century.

Instead of publishing the Kerr Report, he commissioned management consultants McKinsey to do a review of the whole operation of the network. Unlike Kerr, the McKinsey people did not consult or engage with postmasters or the Irish Postmasters Union.

A spokesman for An Post said that McKinsey is expected to have completed its work in the next few weeks when the future will then be laid out by An Post. Interestingly, there are no plans to publish a specific report from McKinsey’s work.

The spokesman said that the Kerr Report is feeding into McKinsey and then the overall work will be used to map out the future. Media reports suggest that McKinsey may recommend closure of up to 500 post offices.

The prospect of such a high level of closures should be seen in light of the fact that despite the major fears running through the country, just 29 offices closed in the last five years.

So for many, the choice is stark. The Kerr Report or what is expected to be the more radical and more devastating work or “report” compiled by McKinsey.

The IPU has urged An Post to publish the Kerr report but to no avail. The An Post spokesman said that Kerr is concerned with a five year plan while McKinsey is dealing with up to twenty years so there is no point in publishing Kerr.

On March 10, McRedmond wrote to the IPU informing that “the review will be completed in a matter of weeks following which we will engage with the stakeholders incuding the IPU and we expect major decisions to be made before the summer.”

At government level, there is a general hands-off approach. Last month, the Cabinet was asked to authorise a series of pilot projects for post offices which might see a new range of services being offered.

When An Post does announce its plans it is expected to generate the kind of backlash from rural TDs that will make anything to do with drink-driving laws look like a six-year-old’s birthday.

The coming storm was forecast a fortnight ago when it was announced that the network was reverting to the Department of Communications from the Department of Rural Affairs.

For some reason responsibility for the network was handed to Rural Affairs on formation of the current government. The reversal of this policy is as good a sign as any that no government politician will want to be associated with a plan signalling the death-knell of the rural post office in Ireland.

Others bemoan a lack of imagination in dealing with the issue. There exists among postmasters and mistresses a feeling that An Post is not even attempting to attract new business to its brand. This is rejected by the company spokesman. “We went after the contract to issue the driver’s licence, for instance, and we didn’t get it. That was disappointing. But we do go after any business that comes up for tender.”

Michael Fitzmaurice is not impressed with the approach of An Post to the problem.

“It looks like An Post are going to drop the hatchet. But if they do they have to have a viable plan in place. There’s no sign of that yet.

“I’m not saying we have to have a standalone post office everywhere, some of them will have to close. But there needs to be a proper plan in place. If post offices close, there has to be some way that a local shop of whatever can take up the slack and ensure that the pensioner can still get their pension, that stamps and some form of community banking stays there. You still have to have the facilities in the parish.”

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