Another one bites the dust ... we have to halt this cull of post offices

A nation without local post offices is a nation in danger of losing its soul, says John Dolan in his weekly column
Another one bites the dust ... we have to halt this cull of post offices

The closing of the Post Office at Barrackton, Military Road, Cork City back in 2021.

A YEAR ago tomorrow, Ann Dorgan closed the door on Barrackton Post Office on Cork’s northside for the final time.

It marked the end of an era - four generations of her family had served the local community from it for more than a century.

A year on, and this week we learned that the post office on High Street in Turners Cross is set for a similar fate - another closure, another loss for another community.

Sadly, the demise of those hubs of community life - particularly for the elderly, and for those who don’t have access to transport - is not unusual in recent times.

But these two closures stand out.

Usually, post offices shut in rural areas. Indeed, in a major cull by An Post three years ago, when they closed 159 of them, the majority were in countryside locations. A dozen of these were in Cork, including my local one in Carrigadrohid, near Macroom, where Ted and Noreen Dunne had been a pivotal part of the business community for 20 years.

But the closures in Barrackton on the northside and High Street on the southside underline something more alarming.

It’s one thing for An Post and the Government to state the case that rural footfall means post offices there are uneconomic.

But when businesses in busy city locations are closing and unable to find a buyer, then the entire business model appears to be worryingly unsustainable.

Of course, there is a sad logic to the diminishing number of post offices in our midst. Letters are known as ‘snail mail’ for a reason, in this age of instant electronic communication. Even when folk have parcels delivered these days, they are likely to use Amazon and private deliveries.

But you would need to have a heart of stone not to see that a nation without local post offices is a nation that is in danger of losing its soul; a place where business is money, and all else is irrelevant.

The announcement of the impending closure of the post office on High Street in Turners Cross on March 5 came as a shock for locals when The Echo broke the story this week.

Its postmaster had announced his resignation and An Post said they had received no applications for the position there, and had “no alternative” but to close it.

Local councillors spoke out against the decision.

Dan Boyle of the Green Party said he was concerned about local access to financial services as the local credit union and AIB bank had also closed in recent times.

Independent councillor Kieran McCarthy said the decision was like “losing a friend” and called on An Post to extend the closing time and engage with the local community.

The sad fact is, our post offices are vanishing at a rate of knots, and when they go, they leave more than a business-shaped hole. Their absence can reduce communities to shells.

Post offices were struggling before the pandemic, and that heaped more pressure on them, while the staff carried on with the essential service despite the threat to their own health.

So, do we just wring our hands and say these closures are a sign of the times?

We don’t have to. We can take a stand instead and insist that An Post and the Government offer more support to them, and crucially, extend their range of services to give them a lifeline.

The maths are simple - and actually not as bad as you might think. The cost of running the Post Office Network in 2021 was estimated at €70m, generating a retail revenue of €53m.

That €17m shortfall is arguably a small sum to swallow, compared to the level of economic and social value post offices continue to bring.

The public are on side too. Recent research found 91% of people said their post office provided a valuable service to the local community, 86% supported the Government providing financial support to keep them open, and 86% wanted more State services available in them.

Equivalent support has been doled out to post offices in the UK, Poland, France, Italy, Belgium, Finland and Spain. Why not in Ireland, too?

It’s a lifeline that needs to be secured swiftly. Post offices are currently being supported by a ‘pandemic fund’ that will expire at the end of 2022. However, by June in just a few months’ time, many postmasters will be making decisions on whether they want to stay in business, and that is effectively the deadline for the Government and An Post to deliver plans to safeguard their future.

You couldn’t blame some postmasters for trying their hand at something else, if there is no helping hand offered to them in the next few months.

If the Government continues to drag its feet and allows that deadline to come and go without lifting a finger, it’s no exaggeration to state that we could rapidly see the closure of hundreds more post offices across the land; perhaps as many as half of the 900-odd still standing.

The closure of even one is a body blow on a community level.

Ned O’Hara, General Secretary of the Irish Postmasters’ Union, in the face of an existential threat, is calling for the Government to allow them to provide a State identification verification service that will increase footfall to them and generate more income.

Mr O’Hara is keen to stress that post offices have shown they can adapt to the modern world, coping with changes such as Brexit and also now offering Bank of Ireland services. The latter is important, given that more than half of post offices are located at least 5km from a bank.

Postmasters are hardly idle - they serve 1.3 million customers a week, and facilitate welfare payments of €6.7 billion every year.

Their range of services encompasses finance, mail and parcels, Government services such as TV and dog licences and garda fines, and a host of retail products and National Treasury Management Agency services.

But they need that extra support from the Government to keep their heads above water.

Sadly, anything the Government introduces will be too late to save the Barrackton and Turners Cross post offices. Perhaps it will be your local post office that is next in the firing line?

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