Rural communities are in mourning this weekend.
Up and down the western seaboard in particular, dozens of communities are coming to terms with the loss of a long-standing and symbolic piece of infrastructure.
On Tuesday, An Post publicly announced the 159 post offices that are to close in the coming days and weeks. For some, this is a move that will affect their weekly lives.
Collecting the pension of other social welfare payments presents a rare opportunity for elderly people, in particular, to socialise in the most cursory manner in rural Ireland. That loss will be keenly felt.
For most people in these communities, the loss will not be personal but symbolic. The corner of the convenience store where it was located will now be disused.
Waiting in line at the check-out counter, a vacant glance at where the office had operated might give rise to a fleeting sense of sadness for the changing times, or even elicit nostalgia.
Passing the closed door of the post office in the middle of the day could do likewise. On winter afternoons as the light fades, the darkened post office front will serve as a reminder that that life as it was once known is not coming back.
These kind of emotions should be acknowledged. Symbols are hugely significant in that place known as rural Ireland.
Out there, beyond the cities and big towns, there is a sense of siege. As economic activity is further concentrated in the main population centres, there persists a belief that rural Ireland is being ignored, effectively shut down.
For many, the post office closures represent another “attack on rural Ireland”. Well, who’s doing the attacking?
The reality with most of the closures announced last week is that the post offices are no longer viable. In many cases, the postmasters and mistresses were at or beyond retirement age.
If any of them were determined to remain open, that was their prerogative. Certainly, An Post was using more stick than carrot to encourage them to pack it in, but nobody was holding a gun to their heads.
What effort did the affected communities make to ensure the post offices
What if everybody in all of those communities diverted every bit of business possible through the post office?
Would there then be a case for some of them to remain open, a case to put to An Post that they should be included in future plans?
Last Wednesday, a public meeting over the closures in Roscommon heard from Imelda Burke, a post mistress in Ahascragh, Co Galway. She sent out a letter to 150 people in the community urging them to use the post office or see it disappear.
Her campaign resulted in three pensioners switching their accounts to the post office from the bank.
Ahascragh still has a post office but at that rate it will hardly remain sustainable in the long term. How typical is the experience there of hundreds of small communities up and down the country?
The reality is everybody wants their post office to remain open, but is there any queue of relatively young people lining up to apply to run the offices over the medium term? In a lot of places, the level of business simply cannot provide a half-decent income.
There is a compelling case for opening up the network to provide for far more services in order to secure the future for viable post offices throughout the State.
But even if that comes to pass, those now closing would hardly see prospects transformed.
This failure to accept a wider reality is something that has dogged the decline of rural Ireland over the last 50 years.
In this regard, politicians have been particularly culpable, pandering to a few votes, rather than attempting to show a sustainable way forward. Every change, every
unpalatable acceptance of reality, is met as an “attack on rural Ireland”.
Fianna Fáil has been quick out of the blocks to decry the latest attack. Yet that party was in power when 720 post offices were closed between 2000 and 2010.
At the meeting in Roscommon, Communications Minister Denis Naughten said the closures are not an attack on rural Ireland.
You can bet your bottom dollar that if he was in opposition, he would be eloquently laying out the enormity of the attack being perpetrated by a heartless government.
In recent months, politicians claiming to have the best interests of rural Ireland at heart spent a lot of capital in decrying new drink driving laws. These were an “attack” on a way of life.
Before that, the attack on rural Ireland was apparently manifest in the closure
of Garda stations that had been opened before the advent of the motor car.
A few years ago, certain politicians would have had you believe that rural Ireland was under attack from restrictions to fox hunting.
In the area of planning, any restrictions on one-off housing form another “attack”, with little thought for sustainability for the wider communities in these areas over the long term. As far as politicians are concerned, sustainability is to do with the next election.
Taking such a stance has serious repercussions. For one thing, it dilutes political capital. If everything is an “attack”, then how seriously are the real problems going to be taken?
For instance, Fianna Fáil has announced that the post office closures will be brought up with Fine Gael in the context of renewing the confidence and supply arrangement.
Is that warranted? Where does such a stance leave the universal provision of broadband in the hierarchy of demands or needs for rural Ireland?
If an electoral issue is to be made on what really makes a difference in rural Ireland, surely it should be made on the appalling service of broadband.
Broadband is the most vital, but not the only, feature that can boost economic activity in rural Ireland. And economic activity is the only thing that will sustain these areas into the future.
But like so much in our political culture, the short-term trumps the long-term every time, and following rather than leading is the order of the day for politicians.
Rural Ireland is in decline due to the march of modernity across western
society from the land towards large population centres.
That is a painful, and quite possibly regressive in a global sense, reality. While this country has been behind others in joining the march, it has still been going on for nigh on 50 years.
Tackling this is enormously difficult, requiring commitment, imagination and a collective approach from communities that remain. It also requires a strategy of picking the right battles and leaders with some kind of long-term vision.
With a few exceptions, political representatives don’t deal in anything beyond the next election.
That approach, as much as anything else, represents the real attack on rural Ireland.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved