'Inaction may see mass post office closures'

Government inaction could lead to the closure of hundreds of post offices in the coming years, it has been claimed.

Speaking at a rally of postmasters outside the Dáil last night, general secretary of the Irish Postmasters Union (IPU) Brian McGann said Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte’s plan to review the sector through the Cabinet sub- committee on social policy was a “recipe for doing nothing”.

“This amounts to little more than a recipe for doing nothing. It is another example of a Government minister under pressure kicking the can down the road,” he said.

At an Oireachtas committee hearing earlier in the day, Mr McGann discussed a new report, commissioned by the union, which found that if An Post lost the contract with the Department of Social Protection to pay out social welfare benefits, some 557 post offices could close.

Mr McGann said that although An Post recently won this contract, the department was actively driving business out of post offices and into banks.

“The Department of Social Protection has stated in the current contract document, that An Post will be required to assist the department in achieving its objectives to move to electronic payments.

“This will involve forcing many of the 51% of people currently receiving their payments over the counter to move to using a bank account,” he said.

Mr McGann said that the minister was asking the IPU and its members to “sleepwalk into a situation where the welfare payments business disappears by stealth and failure to act”.

The IPU general secretary also said An Post proposals to develop an alternative network through ‘Post and Pay’ facilities in Tesco and other supermarket multiples “could destroy the network within two years”.

However, Fine Gael’s Noel Harrington, himself a postmaster, said the wider issue that needed to be addressed was how An Post and the IPU could meet the challenge posed to the Post Office network by the move to cashless electronic payments.

“If we are going to rail against the move to a cashless payment system which is happening here and internationally, we may as well be setting ourselves up as King Canute fighting against the tide,” he said.

Fine Fáil Senator Paschal Mooney said the “elephant in the room” was An Post, which needed to diversify to make the post office network more viable.

However, Mr McGann said post offices were willing to offer any services the Government wished, including electronic payment facilities but that action needed to be taken.

“The Government must produce an action plan. The Grant Thornton and Joint Oireachtas Committee reports are the roadmap for this plan.

“An action plan is vital to the survival of the Post Office network. We need a Government action plan. Postmasters want it. Communities across the country want it,” he said.

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