They have eviscerated the post office network. If I started reading out the names of those closed since summer 1997, I might be here until 9 p.m. That is a disgraceful record. In the last 11-month period, communities around the country, including Whitehall and St. Margaret's in Dublin, Brandon in Kerry, Tomhaggard in Wexford, Grangecon in Wicklow, Church Cross, Kildinan and Carrigrohane in Cork, Martinstown and Holycross, Kilmallock in Limerick, Crosspatrick in Tipperary, Drumcree in Westmeath, Cranford in Donegal and many others have been bereft of a critical postal service.
The list of closures is staggering. In the past five years no corner of Ireland has been left untouched by the hammer-blow to the local community that a post office closure entails. Last week, when I spoke on the issue on RTE, I made the point that for a long time, as everyone in the House knows, the post office was the focal point of each community and a visible sign of the Irish nation and our Republic in every hamlet and town. The Government has slashed that service across the board.
Although there has been a massive decrease in numbers of post offices, it has been difficult to get a completely accurate picture, since the Minister, as Deputy Durkan will know, has continually practised obfuscation when providing figures and tried to include all kinds of elements such as postal counters, agents and so on. However, he cannot deny that there have been 44 shameful closures in the past 11 months.
A report that I recently received on the period since 2000 shows that 505 post offices have closed. The newspaper article associated with it termed it the death of the rural post office. That is one example of what the Government has done to the country. As Mr. John Kane, the very helpful General Secretary of the Irish Postmasters Union, starkly told the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, "parts of the state have been denuded of post offices, particularly on the western seaboard from Donegal to west Cork". He also said that post offices had been closed across the country on a "haphazard basis".
I had that experience in my constituency, not in a small rural area but in one of 2,000 households and 8,000 people, the parish of Priorswood in Dublin North-East. The post office was transferred from the local shopping centre where people could access it, without reference to anyone, to a new Tesco centre over a mile away. Many senior citizens now face a weekly trek to the new shopping centre at Clare Hall or to the Northside Shopping Centre, causing them great dismay, which is also felt by mothers of young children and the many customers in the area who may live over a mile from public transport.
Local business people, led by a very popular local pharmacist, Mr. John Corr, immediately contacted An Post and me to seek a reversal of the decision as the closure of Priorswood post office was such a grave inconvenience to those 2,000 households. In this building, I met the chief of operations, Mr. Larry Donald, who has since left the company. We had a lengthy discussion on the subject, but, as in my contact with the outgoing chief executive, Mr. Donal Curtin, I learned that there are no criteria to decide whether a post office should close, none on expanding rural areas such as those on the periphery of the Minister of State's fair city of Limerick or my own, Dublin, and none on opening new post offices. No one knows what the criteria are, and if An Post knows, it is not telling us. Perhaps the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, will not allow them to do so.
We fought a valiant battle in that area but were unsuccessful. The Acting Chairman will know that I have tried to represent a valiant group in his constituency, the Lombardstown Post Office Action Group in Mallow, County Cork, led by Mr. John Paul O'Shea, which has been in regular contact with my office, in its desperate campaign to retain a service. Among its key problems is that it is not computerised, and the chairman of the committee mentioned that there are almost 400 such offices around the country. I have made representations and I see that Ardgroom, on the western edge of the Beara peninsula in County Cork, with others across this country, particularly in the western counties, has made representations for automation that simply does not happen.
An Post has correctly signed a deal with the Fortis group of Belgium, a famous financial services company with a brilliant track record, to provide such services in every locality in Ireland. However, there will now be 600 or 700 such areas that cannot have the service because the Government has presided over the closure of their post offices. Second, another 400 cannot offer it because they are not automated, which is crazy when, at long last, An Post has undertaken a positive initiative.
The Government must also bear responsibility for the allied problem of social welfare contracts. We know that there is electronic substitution and that the Department of Social and Family Affairs is very interested in moving towards such payments, but we do not understand why the Government has not stood up for An Post at European level regarding the post office contract.
We have also heard threats from the National Treasury Management Agency. It attended the Committee on Finance and the Public Service and stated that it would withdraw from the Post Office Savings Bank, which represents small beer and so does not matter. However, it matters because it is a key function and the NTMA has an obligation to fulfil it, having been given it by this and previous Governments. It is important that such business, often representing up to 75% of that of postmasters and postmistresses, is left in the hands of the post office.
We have also recently seen the notorious problem, particularly in urban areas, of "tiger" raids, disgusting attempted and actual abductions of postmasters and postmistresses. The Labour Party is concerned about the response of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dempsey, to these outrageous attacks on workers who provide such an invaluable service to their communities. When Deputy Durkan and I tried to raise this matter on the Order of Business recently, moreover, we got short shrift from the Tánaiste.
The 2009 deadline for the full liberalisation of the postal market is significant. The Labour Party believes a national postal strategy is essential, but it will not happen without Government action. Some weeks ago, a dynamic chief executive officer of a private postal operation in my constituency visited me in Leinster House. It was clear from our conversation that he is content to cherry-pick the best aspects of the postal service. It seems he is not, however, prepared to offer a postal service in the Beara Peninsula, west Clare, the midlands and other rural areas. The Government must devise a strategy to address this issue.
The Labour Party welcomes the positive developments in labour relations in An Post in recent months. It is regrettable, however, that workers were not paid the agreed arrears for so long. In addition, An Post pensioners were treated disgracefully. We support the Fine Gael motion and call for a strategy for An Post, whether by means of a White Paper or legislation. This strategy must set out its future beyond 2009 in the face of ever-changing means of communication and the prospect of deregulation.