This weekend’s Irish Postmasters’ Union Annual Conference once again shone a light on the dire challenges faced by management and staff at hundreds of post offices in Ireland today. The IPU is claiming that the new tender from the Department of Social Protection to be released next week will effectively force people into having their social welfare payments paid directly into bank accounts. The IPU says that this will cut post offices out of the equation, threatening the network’s survival.
Speaking at the IPU conference Brian McGann, IPU General Secretary, outlined some of the stark statistics behind the union’s fears including the claim that the Department of Social Protection contract constitutes 30% of the post offices’ business. He also pointed out that 18% of people in this country do not hold a bank account, by choice, and that this move will force the ‘unbanked’ who want to claim benefits into the banks. If there is one thing we have learned in the past ten years, it’s that nobody should be ‘forced’ to deal with banks.
While there are undoubtedly massive cost savings to be made by a totally electronic payment system, there is something a little ‘Big Brother’ about pushing people down the electronic payment route if they don’t want to go there. But the Department, for its part, has confirmed that it wants the payments system to be 100% electronic while stressing that people who are not in a position to take electronic payments will not be forced to do so.
However the real crux of the matter here is the role of the post office in communities and what the future holds for these outlets. In many rural communities, the post office is actually the last service standing - having seen off the pub, the Garda station, local business etc. Any threat to the post office would effectively close down a lot of communities, leaving them as mere outposts of the nearest big town.
Of course, the challenges faced by An Post are far greater than just the streamlining of welfare payments. Thanks to email, posting letters is a dying art form. Paying bills can be done in minutes online. And in the times we live in, we can no longer expect to have a post office at every corner. But communities do have a reasonable expectation to find a post office ‘close by’ i.e. not just in the county town.
However unless people rally around and do something to protect their post offices, this is exactly what will happen. It will be too late for hand-wringing when the local post office is gone. If people want a post office in their locality, then they must support it and use the myriad services offered by An Post.