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Future of the Post Office Network: Motion [Private Members] (Continued)

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 972 No. 1

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Brian Stanley: Information on Brian Stanley Zoom on Brian Stanley] For someone on a pension of €220 a week, that could mean the first €30 or €35 could be gone on a taxi fare to get to the nearest post office to collect the pension.

Co-location is another important issue. It is something I have supported from the outset, although I accept that others have opposed it at various times. Sinn Féin believes co-location is a real option, but it is not being considered or sufficiently promoted. The Government and An Post need to support co-location. There are many places where a post office could easily be combined with a local shop or other business, thus giving an additional income and providing for the continuation of postal services, as well as new services. We need additional services, including Government services such as motor tax renewal. Having a State service in the community will benefit and contribute to communities.

Given that banks have withdrawn from rural Ireland, we must consider the introduction of community banking. There was a commitment in that regard in the programme for Government, specifically for the German Sparkasse model. In Germany, there are 390 individual local-authority owned banks. Another option is the New Zealand Kiwibank model, which now has a 20% share of the banking market and 25% of all bank customers in that country.

The post office is the last remaining service in many areas. Communities need services in order to stay alive. In addition to a postal network, communities also need broadband and rural transport services, which many areas do not have. Rural areas will become barren places if post office services are stripped from communities. I ask the Government to recognise that in many cases the post office is similar to the last man standing. We must retain services in rural areas by channelling them through the local post office, thus keeping local villages alive and maintaining vital services in rural areas.

Deputy Martin Kenny: Information on Martin Kenny Zoom on Martin Kenny I bring greetings from the National Ploughing Championships where I spent most of the day. Rural Ireland is alive and well-----

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten Good.

Deputy Martin Kenny: Information on Martin Kenny Zoom on Martin Kenny -----and working very hard. People from various rural communities throughout the country are angry about the situation. I know that the Minister is aware of this because he comes from a rural community. People are angry because they believe the Government has let them down. As my colleague just said, in many small towns and villages where post offices are due to close, other services have been withdrawn in recent years. We are not in this situation because of what happened in recent weeks or months but because of what happened in the past 20 years. The post office service has been run down. In fairness to the Minister, he was not in office while that was happening, but others have allowed it to happen.

The harp over the door in the post office is meant to symbolise the State providing services for the people. Thirty or 40 years ago the Department was known as the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. What happened to it? Communications was considered to be a vital service the Government provided for the people, but that is no longer the case. It is something to be chopped and changed, privatised, hived off, cut back and made smaller and more compact. Government is getting smaller. Two weeks ago at a committee meeting, I said I felt it was part of a corrupt political system. I was not being personal towards the Minister or the Department but the entire system in this country. We have a political system that is about small government, government shrinking and stating to the public that it will not interfere too much in people's lives. Such a model was championed by Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. That is the model people are experiencing throughout the country and unless we change it, there is no hope for rural areas because the places that will be impacted first by such a model of governance are those that are under the most pressure, namely, places such as my community in Aughavass where the post office has closed and where there is little prospect of getting a new contract in place, although the post office would be co-located with a bar and a shop. The same situation is evident in the town of Killeshandra and Ballinphull and Gorteen, County Sligo where the post office is closed and people are seeking to take it over. That is happening all over the country. These communities deserve to have post offices. Other individuals want the contracts and are prepared to apply for them to run the post office for the benefit of the community. It is not too much to ask that the Government which represents the people, who are the messengers of the people and who are elected into government do what they need to do and provide a vital communications service for the public. The post office is a public office with a harp over the door to where people can go to avail of a service in their community.

I wish to focus on the core of the issue for communities. When people were told that their post office was to close, they were told the community could seek a review of the decision. The review was to look at the criteria used to close each post office. Reference was made to the number of people in a community. It was said no community with fewer than 500 people being left without a post office. When we get into the detail, it appears that the reference is to no settlement with fewer than 500 people would be left without a post office. I teased out the issue at the recent committee meeting, which the Minister also attended. It was acknowledged that An Post was using the definition of a settlement in the 2016 census, namely, 500 people living in at least 50 occupied houses, none of which was more than 100 m apart. Anyone who knows anything about the country knows that the vast majority of rural communities live in dispersed rural settlements with scattered dwellings. That is the way we have evolved over centuries, possibly for thousands of years, yet we use the stupid model I have outlined to decide whether we will keep vital post office services in place. The first thing the Minister needs to do is go back to An Post and tell those involved in the review of postal services that in order to make decisions about putting post offices in place, they must change the criteria used. They need to accept that, for example, in my parish when people speak about the community or the settlement, they speak about the entire parish. In other areas, they speak about a village and a reasonable distance around it from which people commute to avail of postal services. The definition of a settlement is totally anti-rural and destroys everything those who stand up for rural Ireland should support.

I spoke privately to the Minister about the issue and will not divulge the contents of a private conversation. The Minister said post offices such as my local post office in Aughavass should have a fair chance of survival because they had a pub, a shop and other services located there. Post offices in Killeshandra, Gorteen, Ballinphull and other places should have a fair chance of survival if they can be co-located, but that option seems to have been turned on its head by the managers in An Post. The challenge is for the Minister to stand up to An Post and make sure he stands up for rural areas and provides postal services for everyone who deserves them.

Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: Information on Mary Lou McDonald Zoom on Mary Lou McDonald Táim buíoch as an deis labhairt ar an rún tábhachtach seo. Ba mhaith liom mo chuid buíochais a ghabháil leis an Teachta Brian Stanley as ucht an rún a chur faoi bhráid na Dála. Iarraim tacaíocht ó gach aon Teachta don rún atá os ár gcomhair.

The programme for Government contains a number of commitments on the postal network, principally in respect of providing additional services through post offices such as motor tax services, which would assist in safeguarding the future viability of the post office network. The announcement three weeks ago of the closure of 159 local post offices, however, flies in the face of repeated pronouncements that the Government is committed to the post office network. As the Minister well knows, post offices form a vital part of local communities. The fact is that their closure will have a devastating impact on many communities, mostly rural and in many cases isolated. That is a direct result of Government inaction which has resulted in the decline of the post office network and has not allowed alternative services to be established and expanded, as promised in the programme for Government.

Members of Fianna Fáil, despite the rhetoric, are as complicit as those on the Government benches. Between 2000 and 2011, Fianna Fáil closed 732 post offices; therefore, it is a little galling to listen to Fianna Fáil representatives talking tough about post office closures when the reality is that they will do nothing to prevent it from happening. Sinn Féin, however, has a motion before the Dáil. It is a common-sense motion, practical in its approach and calls on the Government to prevent post offices closures by advertising new contracts; to reinvigorate the network by extending the services post offices provide and retaining existing services such as social welfare payments; to implement proposals contained in the Kerr report from 2016 which included post offices providing financial and Government services; and to commit to a new model of community banking. These are meaningful actions which would go a long way to ensuring the future survival of the post office network.

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