Special Report (Rural Ireland): Post office’s role is vital to rural society

Where a post office closes its door, the survival of of other small businesses is tested, writes Seona O’Fegan

Special Report (Rural Ireland): Post office’s role is vital to rural society

THE rural postmaster/postmistress often comes from a strong family history of dedication to the community, of running the local post office through generations, and being deeply embedded in the life of the locality.

I took over the office from my mother-in-law and my daughter now works with me.

We know fundamentally that our engagement with the public is different from other businesses. Post offices provide core public and commercial services, but beyond that we also deliver a social role that goes far beyond a normal business function.

Post offices bring a positive influence for other private commercial businesses in the community, as customers who collect their social protection entitlements by extension spend this money in their local economy, such as the pharmacy, hairdresser, or local shop.

There is clear evidence throughout Ireland that where a post office closes its doors, the survival of other small businesses is seriously tested as the cash provided through the post office no longer gets spent locally.

In many communities, especially in rural areas, the post office coexists with the only shop in the area and each business entity supports the other.

The post office also facilitates various financial services allowing customers to pay bills, thereby controlling and managing their own budgets, lodgement to bank accounts, as well as savings and investments.

Furthermore, our communities often turn to us for advice on a wide range of citizen information issues, providing government application forms and we are often a first point of call for tourists seeking local information.

When customers walk through the door of a Post office, they know they are dealing with a person that they can rely on and trust. Most Irish people (1.7m people use the post office every week) are very supportive because community is a very important element of who we are as a nation.

Postmasters are currently highly frustrated by how difficult it seems to be for the powers that be in Dublin to understand their full value and function. If government policy does not place a de facto value on post offices, the network as we know it will die in the coming years.

Many people do not realise that postmasters are not employees of An Post or the Government; we are self-employed, paying rents, rates, salaries, insurance, and taxes before taking any income for ourselves.

Our income is generated per transaction at the counter. As the amount of transactions fall due to Government policy to migrate social protection payments to private commercial banks, in a short number of years postmasters will not be able to continue in business.

Social protection payments account for more than 30% of all post office business and generate a significant amount of follow on transactions. If the Government continues to move those payments into the private banking sector, post offices will close en masse and a central pillar of our community will be lost.

So what needs to be done? A post office-based electronic transaction account needs to be developed which would provide people with the option of receiving and transacting social protection payments via the post office, either in cash or electronic fund transfer. While this is being established, the Department of Social Protection should cease encouraging people to receive their entitlements through the private banking system and work on the basis that the post office is the provider of choice.

Postmasters would also enthusiastically embrace the opportunity to provide additional services to communities such as motor tax, drivers licence renewal, payment of hospital charges, payment of State examination fees and many other of the good ideas as set out in the Bobby Kerr-led post office business development group’s interim report last June.

A key point to understand is that postmasters cannot deliver services as we choose; we are contracted to provide only those services which An Post and Government sanction.

It is not possible for postmasters to expand and develop our services without the commitment of government through its semi-state company An Post. Political decisions have to be made urgently and implemented.

All of the above is why postmasters such as myself are now taking our own political action. We will be running up to eight candidates in the general election; both myself and Cabra postmaster Andrew Kelly have officially launched our candidacies.

We are standing as independent candidates on a platform of community with post offices as a key ingredient of our concept. Further candidates will be launched in September.

I have been overwhelmed and truly humbled at the level of support since my own launch, but this is not surprising because Irish people want to live in their communities in a vibrant way and have the choice to work, shop and interact locally.

If elected, we will demand policies which support the post office network as a national asset and a vital ingredient for protecting and supporting local economies and communities.

Seona O’Fegan is a postmistress in Barna, Co Galway, and will run as a Community and Post Office candidate in the forthcoming election.



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