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Post-office network a missed opportunity

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

A fortnight ago, on a day widely referenced as a ‘dark day for rural Ireland’, An Post announced the closure of over 150 rural offices, the majority along the Western seaboard. While it’s hard to argue with the business rationale behind the decision – the fact is, far fewer people are using post office services and the demand to either run them or use them is simply not there – there is no denying that this news does feel like another body blow.
The loss of post offices is symbolic; who doesn’t pass a closed or abandoned small rural post office without feeling a tinge of sadness about what it represents? Irrespective of the economic arguments, the gradual shutting down of this network feels like another blow to a sector of society that is increasingly feeling abandoned, isolated and powerless to fight against what feels like strategic rural depopulation.
Loneliness in Ireland is becoming a major social problem as we retreat from spontaneous neighbourly visits behind closed gates and adhere to pre-arranged visiting times. The pension collection is a small window for some to socialise, even if just by speaking to another person. But emotion and economics don’t mix, so where to from here?
I could barely tell you the last time I was in my local post office. I have, however, visited my bank, the motor tax office and the driving licence centre, the latter entailing a round trip of 80km.
There are arguments to roll out more services to the post-office network, but in reality, it’s akin to sticking a finger in the dam; ultimately technology will win.
Social welfare payments, motor tax and other services are available online and demand for postage is low. Fault lies too with An Post for failing to innovate a decade ago when the writing was on the wall, but if we are fighting battles in rural Ireland, access to adequate broadband is probably the one upon which we should be hanging our hat.  
There is, however, an argument for a public banking system using the post office network. It has been explored by the Irish government, but incredibly, in a recent report on local public banking in Ireland it was claimed that there was no compelling reason to establish a new system. The cost of €170 million was apparently prohibitive, yet it’s notable that the Government was happy to hand over tens of billions of euros to existing banks, along with granting generous tax concessions, despite their decisive role in the economic crash.
Sparkassen, the German public-banking model (and the market leader) is commonly cited as a public banking success story. The bank has municipal trusteeship, and a public mandate, meaning that profits are reinvested into society. Interestingly, each brand has a clearly defined region within which to operate, thus promoting balanced regional economic development. Imagine that?
Imagine a not-for-profit institution (in our case, using the existing, ready-made network of post offices) that would also allow small businesses – particularly in rural areas – to access finance, would increase competitiveness in the financial-services market and would potentially allow post offices to better sustain themselves. The Government’s dismissal of the model is disappointing, to say the least.
Mind you, this is Ireland, so we’d inevitably find a way to mess it up. In its report, the Government did acknowledge that the alternative establishment of local public banks might bring competition to the market. It committed to ‘examining’ this, which as we all know, is nothing more than a vague non-commitment, not worth the paper on which it is printed.  
It seems like a shame and a missed opportunity for rural Ireland if this post-office network, built up over centuries, was left to disintegrate without alternative uses being found. It’s also a bigger shame and a real crime against rural development that the delivery of the National Broadband Plan – a much greater necessity than rural post offices – has descended into such a farce.
Ultimately however, the real problem is our political system. It’s the nature of the beast, but when our representatives are more focused on short-term wins that will help them succeed in the next election than on the long-term vision and ambition for their regions, what hope does rural Ireland really have?

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