There was a time, not so long ago, that the Post Office was a community hub in every small town and village in Ireland. It provided not only essential postal services but also a place to safely deposit and withdraw money.
Every child at one stage was encouraged to have a savings account, a place to safely keep their pennies, and to develop good economic values that lasted a lifetime. For those who had savings deposited with their postmasters, they were assured of confidentiality equalled to that of the confessional box. When An Post decided, in a cost cutting effort, to close many of our rural post offices, it saw the start of a rural decline that continues to this day.
In September 2020, an independent report by Grant Thornton stated that the state should provide the Post Office Network with €17 million a year from 2021 through a Public Service Obligation (PSO). The Post Office Network is at a “critical juncture”, the report said, and the financial viability of the network is being “challenged like never before”.
The report warns of the need for this action to be taken as soon as possible as the Network “faces significant levels of unrestrained closures by the end of 2021”.
The Irish Postmasters Union (IPU), the body representing independent postmasters, commissioned the report ‘Review of the economic contribution and financial sustainability of the Irish Post Office Network’.
The Postmasters are arguing that under a Public Service Obligation, this €17 million could be granted. General Secretary of the Irish Postmasters’ Union Ned O’Hara said that the Post Office Network provide “a lot of services that they don’t get paid for. “Covid-19 undoubtedly places a further strain on the network due to the dramatically reduced levels of economic activity, changes in the frequency of social welfare payments and the resulting customer footfall which generates vital ancillary revenue streams upon which the network relies,” the report stated.
Only 45 of all offices belong to An Post and the rest are contracted to 899 individual postmasters.
This was news to me. Many of us assume that postmasters are direct employees of An Post, and that their salaries are secured. Not so, it seems. So how exactly do the other 899 earn a living? They are, in fact, self-employed, and in contract with the company. Recently, I spoke to a local postmaster. I asked if his business was viable. “At this moment, yes” he said, “But there are salary reductions on the way” The contract that independent postmaster had agreed with the company three years ago is nearing expiry. At that time, An Post offered a subsidy to postmasters to encourage self-employment. That subsidy allowed postmasters to absorb quieter days, but it will be withdrawn in a few short weeks. The income from the post office will depend solely on footfall, and on transactions carried out on a daily basis. To put it bluntly, if we the public are not prepared to use our local post offices, they will become unviable, and we will once again witness more closures. The pandemic has put an added strain on the resources of the self-employed post masters who has had to put many safety measures in place, at their own expense.
The independent, stand-alone post office differs from those incorporated in supermarkets. They offer a level of privacy and confidentiality that is simply impossible in a large grocery store. People may not want to queue for social welfare payments while chatting to a neighbour with a trolley of groceries. The post office is also a place of com-munity engagement, a place where help is at hand for services unrelated even to postal issues, like filling forms, etc. That’s always been the case, certainly in any post office that I’ve dealt with. And furthermore, the list of services is increasing. In an almost cashless society, we’re encouraged to use online banking to pay bills, to get our wages, use standing orders and direct debits etc, but for those who do not have access to the internet or a smart phone, only the local post office can facilitate these services. Paper and coin cash is almost impossible to access. Yet we need it constantly, even if only to light a candle in the church. Many banks recently announced closures, others will take change only on certain days, and some will never accommodate turning coins to cash. Post Offices offer a wide range of services, including AIB and Ulster Bank financial services, and within a short time, Bank of Ireland customers will also be able to avail of these banking services. You can still encourage children to save money, and pay your TV licence, phone and ESB bill, draw down your social welfare and pension payments, track your parcels, and of course, post your mail. For many people, the one-to-one interaction with the postmaster is much more preferable than trying to figure out how to operate a machine within a bank, particularly now since banks everywhere have cut down on staff.
Post Masters love their jobs. They’re happy to be of service to all who calls on them. The local postmaster I spoke to said “I’ve worked here for years. I love chatting to people, 95% of whom are all locals. We only get about 5% of passing trade, I’d say”.
Rural Ireland has suffered enough. Losing more of our Post Offices would simply decimate our towns and villages further. It’s reasonable to presume that a post office adds greatly to the economy of a village or a town. People using the post office will invariably shop in that area. The message is quite simple; Keep your business in town if you want your town to have business. The onus is on all of us to keep using our post offices. Let’s hope that the report by Grant Thornton will get the attention it deserves in Government quarters as soon as possible, before contracts expire.