The meeting to address the future of the post office network was hosted by Fianna Fáil TD Mary Butler at the Rainbow Hall in Kilmacthomas last Wednesday evening and was attended by her party’s Spokesperson on Communications, Environment & Natural Resources Timmy Dooley TD.
And it wasn’t just the post office network which was discussed, as many of those in attendance highlighted the link between the future of Ireland’s post offices and the future of rural Ireland in general.
Many suggestions were made in relation to increased services which post offices could potentially provide if government support is given.
Tramore Postmaster and Irish Postmasters Union (IPU) Treasurer and South East spokesperson Sean Martin said he welcomes the steps being taken to address the issues facing post offices but also expressed some disappointment.
“We’ve aired our problems for years. We’ve been talking to the government, including Fianna Fáil, and all we’ve been getting is lip service,” he said.
“There’s no point in calling a meeting and then going back to Dublin and doing nothing about it. But, this is a start and I’m hoping that action will come from this. ”
During the meeting, he pointed out that people using their local post office are likely to spend their money within their own locality.
“If that money isn’t in the locality, then the butcher dies, the baker dies, the candlestick maker dies,” he said.
“This isn’t just about saving the post office network – this is about saving our communities.”
While he said he understands the movement towards increased use of technology, he criticised the policy of “coercing” post office customers to use commercial banks “which ruined this country.
“If this continues, the network will collapse,” he said.
“People want to be able to collect money and pay bills at their post office but they can’t because they are being told they must go to the bank. People are entitled to go where they want, but they shouldn’t be coerced. The government is trying to control how people live their lives and spend their money and I think that’s wrong.”
He added: “We’ve been looking for motor tax for 20 years and nothing has been done. We’re not looking for sole exclusivity – we’re just looking for another option. The post office needs to become the State on your doorstep whereby we can deliver whatever product or service you want from the State.”
He believes there isn’t sufficient willingness at government level to address the issues facing the post office network.
“I’m embarrassed to say some postmasters are operating on salaries of less than €15,000 – that’s for five and a half days service per week and that’s before they pay insurance, light and heat,” he said.
“If the State is interested in keeping rural Ireland alive, they have to invest in it. At the moment, they are not investing in it. And not only are they not investing in rural Ireland, they are actually killing it.”
He continued: “If we allow everything to go online, we may as well shut up shop everywhere because there will be no villages – everybody will be sitting at home playing on their computer. That’s not the society we want. If you go into any post office you are welcomed, they want your business and want to ensure you’re happy before you leave. I’d love to be able to do more stuff in the post office but it’s not up to me, it’s up to the government to allow us to deliver these services.”
Helen Ridgard from The Sunfower Shop on Main Street, Kilmacthomas pointed out the impact which the closure of the village’s AIB branch had five years ago.
“All of AIB’s customers from the catchment area went to Dungarvan or Waterford instead of coming into Kilmacthomas. It would be the same if the post office went,” she said.
One of the proposals in the report on the future of Ireland’s post office network by businessman Bobby Kerr is the concept of co-location.
This is seen as being a viable way forward in terms of securing the future of existing post offices.
Kenny Beresford outlined his experiences when Portlaw’s post office re-located to Centra six years ago.
“It was good for Centra and it was good for us,” he said.
“We did well for a few years, but things have been going downhill for around three years.”
He also said that one of the major issues facing the post office network is that people are continuously being encouraged towards using banks.
“Every week they’re getting letters telling them they have to go to the bank,” he said.
However, the idea of co-location isn’t deemed feasible for everyone, with Valerie,,, from Tallow expressing concerns.
She pointed out that if she was to do this it would cost her significantly as she would be required to install a specific type of counter as is now stipulated by An Post.
“I don’t even entertain that idea at the moment,” she said.
Mary Power, postmistress in Kilmacthomas, also believes post offices could be providing increased services and says the network should have been given the contract for driving licences.
“We didn’t get it, and now more business has been taken away and our social welfare contract is dwindling away as well,” she said.
“We’ve had the Grant Thornton report, the Bobby Kerr report, McKinsey report. Bit by bit the business is dwindling away and all these reports are left there. I’m not a small post office, but yet I don’t see any future. I’m paying two part-time staff, paying rent, rates, insurance. I had a sorting office with seven postmen, but that was taken away last October and income has gone down.”
She explained that seven vans are now driving into Waterford every day to collect post and are then coming back out to Kilmacthomas.
“That’s 25km in and 25km out,” said Mary.
She also highlighted the need for more banking services.
“People want the personal touch but they’re not getting that anymore with the banks,” she said.
She is unsure of what will come from last week’s meeting but believes rural communities will continue to suffer unless immediate action is taken.
In nearby Lemybrien, postmistress Kay Veale has been operating the local post office for 40 years along with her husband Jimmy.
The post office is located within Lemybrien’s Mace shop which they also operate.
They are continuing a proud family tradition, as Jimmy’s mother previously ran the post office in the area for 50 years.
It was first located in nearby Kilrossanty before re-locating to Lemybrien and then to its current location within the Mace store.
As the post office is located on the busy N25, Kay says she deals with a lot of passing trade.
She also has many loyal customers from what is a large, rural surrounding catchment area.
She says post offices act as an important focal point within rural communities and is glad that the issue is now receiving attention and hopes that something will be done.
“The start of the downfall was when the banks took certain services,” she said.
“The government should make sure every postmaster and postmistress has a proper wage. They have to come up with something new for the post office network to exist.”
An issue of major concern raised from the floor at last week’s meeting was the possibility that the post office network’s TV licence contract may possibly go to tender.
It was acknowledged that, if this does happen, there is a very real possibility that it could leave the post office network which would be a substantial loss.
After hearing the concerns of those in attendance, Deputies Timmy Dooley and Mary Butler reiterated their commitment to working to protect the post office network.
Sean Martin put it to Deputy Mary Butler and her Fianna Fáil colleagues that their position within the current administration means that they have the power to bring about change if they really want to.
“Mary, maybe you will be the TD to save rural Ireland,” he said.
Deputy Butler said Fianna Fáil would “not be found wanting” on this issue and highlighted the potential which still exists in rural Ireland.
She used the Waterford Greenway and its transformative impact on Kilmacthomas as an example of what can be achieved.
Meanwhile, Deputy Dooley said there is “recognition that people are changing habits and patterns”.
“What we have to look for are completely new ideas,” he said.
“There’s a certain percentage of the public that want everything online. But people still require services. Not everything can be done online. For everything that’s done online, somebody somewhere else has to process the input and output.”
He said the post office acts as the nucleus in many communities around which other services depend on.
While he said the roll out of services such as motor tax to the post office network would be “helpful”, he said this wouldn’t solve all of the problems.
He said Fianna Fáil would work to ensure that the current suite of services continue to be available to the greatest extent possible and would strive to ensure that the post office network “moves in tandem with the people.”
Whatever about the politics of the issue, and regardless of which party or politician will be the one to bring about change, it was clear at last week’s meeting that urgent action is required in order to safeguard the future of our post office network.
And it was also clear that, with the correct supports in place from government, postmasters and postmistresses are willing to continue to work hard to safeguard this vital community service.