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Communications Regulation (Postal Services) (Amendment) Bill 2016: Second Stage (Continued)

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 935 No. 1

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Eugene Murphy: Information on Eugene Murphy Zoom on Eugene Murphy]  I will hand over to my two colleagues shortly. Supporting this action is not the most popular thing to do but my party and I recognise that this is a critical situation. While the proposal is to increase the charges significantly, as I stated, we have to consider what might come down the road in the short term if we do not act now. We all know and accept that a massive reorganisation is needed in An Post. The McKinsey report is due out in June and I am sure there will be a lot of food for thought in it, but in the meantime we must try to save as much as the post office service as we can. No doubt, however, in the coming months a number of post offices will close.

Deputy Pat Casey: Information on Pat Casey Zoom on Pat Casey I also send my best wishes to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment.

This is the first urgent Bill to assist in the people’s legitimate desire to see An Post survive, adapt to a changing world and continue to provide its crucial services to all. As such, it is to be welcomed even if its effect will see the cost of certain services rise. The urgency of the Bill, while welcomed, has not been accompanied by urgent Government action in the retention of postal services for all the people. I note that another purpose of the Bill is to give An Post further remit as the universal service provider of postal services, which again is laudable. However, any reasonable person looking at the Bill, which claims to enable An Post to be a universal postal service regardless of geographical location, will probably be very puzzled, as was I. Perhaps I am wrong. However, An Post providing a universal postal service, regardless of geographical location is a fine statement that is similar to the language the new President-elect uses. It does not stand up and is simply not true to reality.

While we are talking about protecting this universal service provider, regardless of geographical location, An Post is closing rural post offices throughout Ireland. Just before Christmas, when I should have been expecting a Christmas card, I received a telephone call from An Post. It informed me that my local post office in Laragh-Glendalough would be closing in January. This was shocking enough but, when we look at it further, the decision does not make any commercial sense. Laragh has had a post office for more than 150 years. The reason it has had a post office for this length of time is that Laragh is located beside one of Ireland’s oldest and most popular visitor attractions, the monastic city of Glendalough and the spectacular valley that surrounds it. Laragh is a small village in Wicklow that happens to receive 1.5 million visitors a year. It is worth repeating that An Post is about to close the post office in Laragh, where there are 1.5 million potential customers a year. Most businesses I know would break their necks trying to get access to such a potential market but An Post decides to close the post office and to do so over the Christmas period in order that nobody will notice.

The people of Laragh and Glendalough noticed and I commend them for their swift actions in defence of the service. When I arranged a meeting with officials from An Post, I was told that it was surprised at the lack of feedback from the public during the consultation period. Not one submission was received. I informed them that this was because the public had not been consulted and that this reason alone should delay the decision. The post office in Laragh should be an example of how the Government is listening to the people and attempting innovative flexible solutions while taking advantage of the unique opportunities that this rural Wicklow village offers. When it comes to political leadership on this matter, however, it seems that the Department believes that the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs is in charge because of the rural post office network group that is co-ordinated from the Department. Confusion when it comes to political leadership is dangerous.

The Government continually talks about listening to the concerns of rural Ireland and responding with actions, but its fine intentions will mean nothing if rural post offices continue to close. If An Post management cannot find the business sense and, dare I say it, the cop-on to see the opportunities that lie in Laragh, what credibility will any promise to protect rural post offices in other parts of Wicklow or, for that matter, Ireland have? All the Ministers involved in this area of policy are rurally based Deputies. They know as well I do the value of the rural post office. If An Post will not act, I implore the Ministers to act to ensure An Post implements the actions in the Kerr report immediately and prevents the closure of viable rural post offices such as that in Laragh.

As a community, we are now asking the Minister to ask An Post to postpone the decision to close the post office in Laragh, to allow time for consultation which did not take place and discussion with all interested groups, to afford Laragh the opportunity to demonstrate how vital the post office is in our community, and to allow the obvious potential of a post office in Laragh to be explored and enhanced. If Laragh cannot retain a post office when it has 1.5 million potential customers, two hotels, five retail shops, two restaurants, 30 bed and breakfast establishments, additional seasonal commercial activity, a community centre that has won awards for innovation and is a model of how social enterprise can work and an expanding school, what hope is there for any rural post office?

Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin: Information on Fiona O'Loughlin Zoom on Fiona O'Loughlin I also wish the Minister, Deputy Naughten, a speedy recovery.

When I was growing up in Rathangan, County Kildare, one of the great institutions in our small village was not just the post office but the postmistress. She was a wonderful woman named Mollie Forde. She was a friend to everyone who supported everyone, young and old, and always gave advice and help where she could. There were queues both inside and outside the post office for all the services she provided. She knew everyone well enough to know when someone turned 18 and were to be placed on the electoral register. She provided that social service. Sadly, Mollie is no longer with us but, thankfully, the post office remains. I would hate to see or envisage Rathangan or any similar village or town not having the services of a post office.

In Ballymore Eustace, County Kildare, Sean Fogarty runs an absolutely thriving business. He had to diversify, be creative and look beyond the common to be able to provide the post office service he provides. A few miles up the road we have the post office in Twomilehouse. This great example of a rural post office was run for 50 years by Jim Valentine and his wife, Abina. Jim's mother was the postmistress before him, since 1938, which is almost 80 years ago. That post office and small shop operated from 7.30 a.m. every day for as long as anyone in the locality could remember. The kitchen table was the sorting end of the business. Coming up to Christmas, the Christmas cards would be laid out by county and the turkeys were brought in for Abina to send to England and further afield. Quite often, she had to kill the turkeys herself. That was the process many years ago. Sadly, just before Christmas the Valentines retired and the post office network put the business out for tender. However, no offer has been made yet. This relates to the fact that small rural post offices now operate for less than the equivalent of the national minimum wage. As such, they are not viable business propositions, but the whole community is losing out on a vital service. Places such as that of the Valentines, Sean Fogarty and the post office in Rathangan have played a vital social and economic role in the communities they serve. We need to acknowledge that with a reduced income and footfall, the future of this type of post office is in danger.

The Grant Thornton report states we are at risk of losing between 450 and 500 of our 1,300 post offices by the end of this year if the situation is not properly addressed. The report also reminds us of the intangible benefits provided by post offices.

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