I welcome the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, to the House.
Post Office Closures: Motion
“That Seanad Éireann:
- post offices provide crucial economic, administrative and social services to communities all around Ireland, especially to those in rural and isolated areas;
- many citizens depend on post offices in order to access basic State services, including social welfare payments and passport applications, as well as key financial services including insurance, banking and foreign exchange;
- this Government and the previous Government have stripped vital State services away from rural communities, including rural transport links, support for small schools, and rural Garda stations;
- previous post office closures took place as a result of population decline and not as a result of a pre-meditated programme to drastically reduce the number of post offices that are present in rural areas;
- technological and societal changes have presented significant challenges to the existent post office business model, and that significant change is required in order to ensure the viability of the An Post Network;
- the Programme for Government committed to revitalising the An Post Network through the introduction of new services; and
- there has been a Post Office Network Business Development Group since 2014, which made a final report to the Government in January 2016 that made 23 recommendations, which have yet to be acted upon;
- it is the Government’s responsibility to provide equality of access to important services to all citizens;
- following the recent decision by An Post to circulate retirement packages to hundreds of post masters and post mistresses, 159 post masters and post mistresses have elected to take their well-deserved retirements;
- it is An Post’s intention that wherever a post master or post mistress has elected to retire, that post office will close, leaving communities without access to critical post office services;
- other European countries have already extended Public Service Obligation (PSO) payments for the purpose of maintaining post office outlets in areas where they would be otherwise financially unviable; and
- the proposed changes to a 15 km radius will place an intolerable burden on the elderly and most vulnerable in our communities, particularly those without access to private or public transport;
calls on the Government to:
- guarantee the current Post Office Network to ensure that all citizens of Ireland have access to this important service by introducing a new PSO payment for post offices, based on models in the United Kingdom;
- immediately roll out new services, as recommended by the Post Office Network Business Development Group and An Post’s own strategy, to ensure the financial viability of the entire An Post network; and
- prevent the loss of post office services in the 159 communities where post masters or post mistresses are retiring by advertising a new contract, appropriate to the local area and taking into consideration the potential for co-location."
I welcome the Minister and thank him for coming to discuss this sensitive and painful motion which directly affects his constituency of Roscommon-Galway. In my time as Minister of State in the then Department of Posts and Telegraphs, I appointed postmasters in Ballaghderreen, Ballinaheglish, Mount Talbot and Monasteraden. It was a matter of appoint, appoint and disappoint. There was tremendous competition at the time for the position of postmaster or postmistress in a village. Lisacul was another place where there was stiff competition between two excellent candidates. The postmaster there, Mr. McCann, became president of the Irish Postmasters Union, IPU. He was from Cavan. I consulted my former colleague, the late John Wilson. When he was delegating responsibility to me, he told me to look after every file but to consult him about Cavan, which I did. That was then and this is now. I also remember that the position in Ballaghderreen was particularly hotly contested. It is worth looking at the file for that particular post office. There was also a massive debate in a village called Ballintubber on the matter. There was a serious local dispute between two families. The matter was the subject of serious debate but that was before my time in the Department. I should have accessed the file on that when I was there because it would have been worthwhile. In Fuerty, Castlcoote, there was also a great debate and the successful candidate, Ms Mamie Delaney and her husband, Mark, ran a successful post office for a long period. There was also a famous situation in Frenchpark when there was a contest between two active people in the village. One of the local Deputies had an encounter with one of the unsuccessful candidates at the time.
I have a long script, but I will speak off the cuff because I was in the Department before An Post was even created. A total of 159 post offices are due to close. I am glad the Minister is present because I wish to make a number of requests of him and to discuss the current situation with him. The following post offices are due to close in Roscommon: Athleague, Cornafulla, Garranlahan, Knockvicar and Loughglynn. The post offices in Galway, which are located in the Minister's constituency, that are due to close are: Ballymoe, Glinsk, Menlough, Woodlawn, New Inn and Eyrecourt. I had a close involvement with the IPU when I was in the Department. That union primarily represents the sub-postmasters and postmasters. Many people do not realise that most of them were not direct employees of An Post or of the Department. They were subcontractors essentially. They had built up a relationship with their customers and were on the front line, providing State services in their post offices. They provided enormously valuable services in every area, not just postal services but information services to tourists and so on. People could go to the post office to trace relations, friends and so on. It is a wonderful network which has worked extremely well. I respect the fact that if people feel they have served their time, they have a right to retire, whether it is on medical, age or personal grounds. Nobody disputes that because it is their prerogative.
However, they are really accepting it on a personal basis. The Minister's responsibility is to look at the localities and at the social and economic affect of the closure of a post office on a village or an area, above and beyond the concern of the Irish Postmasters' Union to negotiate an agreement. That agreement is quite attractive and it is well deserved because they have served the State well.
I refer to my parish of Athleague but I can refer also to other places affected because I know them well, including Loughglinn, Knockvicar, Garranlahan and Cornafulla. Athleague is very much a thriving village. There are 420 families there, which is much more than 500 people. There is a very successful Kepak factory there, which is a major exporter of beef and lamb around the world. The village has a restaurant, shops, including grocery shops, and two very successful public houses. It had four public houses but there are two now. It is a thriving village on the road to Galway. In the circumstances, the postmaster, or postmistress, should be replaced and the services should continue in the same location. The Minister should negotiate with family members in that regard. I know they are interested as they have indicated that they are. The Minister was at a public meeting at Athleague hall and he is aware that Mr. Niall Connaughton made a very good speech at it and indicated that he was very interested in continuing the post office in Athleague. That would be very welcome to the people of the village. Mrs. Josephine Connaughton provided an extremely good service and it was well regarded.
The services at Four Roads and Rahara have been closed; therefore, an important service was being provided in Athleague. Fuerty no longer has a full post office but a post outlet. However, it is also providing a very good service. In some cases, there can be a form of substitution, but it is not as good as a full post office.
The full range of services were available in Athleague, including savings accounts and registered post. The current growth of parcel post mean parcels could be delivered to Athleague and collected by individuals who are out working and do not want their parcels left at their doors. This is one of the big growth areas for An Post, which I welcome. There has been a big turnabout in the viability of An Post, mainly due to the growth of parcel post. It is a very big growth industry and during the Minister's term the service has extended to Saturdays. That is a very positive point in respect of An Post.
I wish to put a few questions on issues which require clarification. The Minister has said there is an appeal system, but the best appeal system is himself. Ministers should accept their responsibilities and not pass them on to committees, that is, people who are an "independent committee". There is no such thing. The committees will go along with what An Post says. I do not accept these independent committees. As they were appointed in the first place, they are not independent. They will go along with An Post's recommendation and an agreement reached with the post office.
Let us clarify the situation. Where a viable post office closes due to personal or family reasons, that post office should be replaced in that village. If it has to go through a tendering process, so be it. That was the position in the past, where post offices were passed down. In most cases, post offices were passed from father or mother to son or daughter. That worked very well because there was a long-standing connection between those families and the area concerned. One repercussion of this post office closing is that a very successful shop will close as well. That is just a general point.
In fairness to the Minister, it would be good to clarify what exactly the repercussions are. What are the possibilities in Loughglinn? It is a very good, very active village with two pubs, right between Roscommon, Castlereagh and Ballaghadereen. Again, there is a case to be made there. Garranlahan is a village I know very well where the post office was very successful for a very long time. There is a post office in Ballinlough. Services will also be withdrawn in Cornafulla in the south Roscommon area. Again, it is a very good catchment area. I am sure that a post office in Monksland, which is a growing, active village could be considered. I call it "Monkstown" for that reason. That could be a possibility, if a person decides of his or her own volition to apply and is accepted.
There is a general feeling that pressure has been put on postmasters to take this deal. It has been a case of "take it or leave it". The Government did not give them any time to consider this. I apologise that I cannot get to my official script, which was provided by wonderful officials in the party.
The Senator is in full flow. I would not like to interrupt him.
The message from Fianna Fáil is that we wholly support the An Post network, and the Government should support it. We want financial support to be considered for post offices in order to maintain them on a viable basis. The Fianna Fáil Party was and is very close to the post office network. It is a connection we have had since the foundation of the State. We support the post offices and want to retain as many as possible. A public service fund could be provided to ensure those post offices that would not otherwise be viable are maintained.
I second the Fianna Fáil motion brought forward by Senator Leyden. I welcome the Minister to the House. If I could go off-message for just a moment, I commend him on the support that he and the Taoiseach are giving to a hugely important project in my area of north Kerry, namely, the Shannon LNG project, which now has the backing of a new developer, New Fortress Energy. I thank the Minister for his continued involvement in that project. Once the final hurdle is cleared in October, I ask him to continue to monitor it and take a hands-on approach and to keep the public representatives informed as much as possible on a non-party basis. It is not a party-political issue.
The Senator might return to the topic of the post offices.
To return to the matter at hand, I join Senator Leyden in his declaration of support for the post office network. I do not buy into the rural Ireland saga of neglect, but it is there. There is no point in me going over it again. We have witnessed the withdrawal of so many services throughout rural Ireland. It is quite depressing. I come from a business background in the town of Listowel, which was always a thriving market town. There are an awful lot of empty premises there, with premises to let. There was a very good programme highlighting that on RTÉ's "Prime Time" last night. It was disturbing. The problem affected villages first but is affecting towns now. What is next?
In regard to post offices, we support the Department of Communication, Climate Action and Environment's policy, A New Vision for Post Office Services in Ireland. It envisages the roll-out of many new services through the post offices, including motor tax, vehicle registration, driver licence services, identifying verification for Government service applications and a digital assist service for people unwilling or unable to use electronic channels for the delivery of Government services. It calls for post offices to provide payment collection services for public authorities, including local authorities, education providers and social services and for payments, including commercial waste fees, licences, planning applications and parking and other fines or payments. All this is extremely good in theory and we support it. We support new services being offered through the network, such as the ability to conduct more financial transactions, assistance in filling out Government forms and so on.
It sounds great and we all buy into it but the reality is that post offices, which were the hub of struggling communities, are closing. The Fianna Fáil way forward is the right way forward; there should be some form of public service obligation model. We have to take a hit. It is a fine line between what is commercially viable and what is economically vital for a community. It is something that every Minister is probably faced with every day of the week. Where does one draw the line? It is a line that must be drawn on the expensive side. We will have to take the hit if we are to try to keep rural services going.
Without repeating what has already been said ad nauseam or what Senator Leyden has said, we should, where possible, let the public service obligation model come into play. Let us find what is essential. I will put my hands up and say Fianna Fáil closed post offices. We took a lot of flak at the time. We really cut it to the bone at the time. There is no further room unless one wants to capsize the whole system altogether by closing it down and giving it to privateers or something like it. The English model is not a bad model to follow in this particular area. The English are not always wrong about everything. The Minister knows what the story is. Our motion is a serious one. We are trying to be positive and strike a balance with the Minister on the continued survival of rural Ireland and the post offices, many of which have been red-lined in my district in places such as Moyvane, Ballylongford and so on. They are essential and the people who use the services will not have any ready alternative without travelling fairly serious distances. The people who will be most affected by this are the most vulnerable in society. These are people who will never get into technology, the elderly or others who may be confused by such things. What some of us think is no bother may be a huge mountain to climb for people of a certain age and background. That is the story and I second the motion.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after “Seanad Éireann:” and substitute the following:
- post offices provide crucial economic, administrative and social services to communities all around Ireland, especially to those in rural and isolated areas;
- technological and societal changes have presented significant challenges to the existing post office business model and, as a result, the post office network is in need of modernisation to build, maintain and protect a service that meets the needs of communities across the country, both rural and urban, for the medium and long-term;
- the announcement by An Post of 159 voluntary closures stems from an agreement reached in May with the Irish Postmasters’ Union (IPU) Executive, which was endorsed by 80% of IPU members;
- in its negotiations with An Post, postmasters sought both the modernisation of the network and a voluntary redundancy package for those that wanted to leave the business;
- postmasters throughout the country have given dedicated service to rural and urban communities over many years and individual decisions to exit the business, for whatever reason, must be respected;
- the agreement between An Post and the IPU represents an important first step in reinvigorating our national post office network and making it a viable, sustainable and modern network for the future;
- the Programme for Government committed to revitalising the An Post network through the introduction of new services; and
- it is longstanding Government policy that postal services will not be directly subsidised by the State, a policy which has been supported by successive Governments;
- the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment has taken significant action to ensure the future viability of An Post and secure the future of the post office network, and these actions have resulted in a restructuring of the company, expansion of services in the post office network and have protected thousands of jobs in the postal sector across the country;
- a Government investment of €30 million was secured for An Post in order to safeguard the five day a week mail delivery service (€15 million) and to protect post office counter services (€15 million);
- Government action has enabled An Post to stabilise its financial position, develop and begin to implement a strategic plan which has seen the company split into two distinct business units:
(i) An Post Mail and Parcels, and
(ii) An Post Retail;
- as part of its strategic plan An Post announced a renewed vision for the post office network which centres on the availability of new services in a modernised, revitalised network, and critical to the implementation of this vision is the deal secured with the IPU;
- An Post is committed to investing €50 million in growing and modernising the post office network over the next few years, which is the equivalent of €45,000 per post office across the country;
- the Government continues to provide significant business to An Post through the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection social welfare contract and National Treasury Management Agency business;
- An Post has confirmed that it has implemented 17.5 of the 19 recommendations of the Final Report of the Post Office Network Business Development Group (Kerr Report) which relate to An Post, and arising from the recommendations of the Kerr Report, Government funding of €80,000 has been allocated to rollout a pilot scheme called ‘Digital Assist’ which will see 10 post offices being equipped to help citizens with online Government interactions;
- the Government has also approved the establishment of an interdepartmental working group, which will report to Government by the end of the year, to identify options, including procurement frameworks, for delivering services to those citizens who do not wish to use, or are unable to use digital services;
- the Government has recently published its report entitled ‘Local Public Banking in Ireland’ and on foot of this Report, an independent evaluation of local public banking will be carried out alongside a stakeholder forum;
- in line with the terms of the agreement with the IPU, a voluntary redundancy package was advertised by An Post and 159 post masters and post mistresses have elected to avail of this package, as in the majority of cases the business is simply no longer sustainable due to declining footfall;
- while the voluntary redundancy package will result in post office closures, An Post has given a commitment that there will be a post office in every community of over 500 people and within 15 km of 95% of the rural population and 3 km of the urban population;
- a protocol specifically sought by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment ensures that any closures are on a voluntary basis, and where a closure is due to occur An Post will make an assessment on the future provision of services within the locality by reference to specific criteria;
- individuals, groups or representatives can apply to have decisions reviewed through a new independent review process which will determine if An Post has correctly applied the criteria outlined in the protocol, and any retailer in the locations earmarked for closure can apply to An Post to be considered to take over some or all of the services of that post office and may appeal an unfavourable decision; and
- by facilitating those that wish to exit the business, neighbouring offices will be further supported thereby ensuring a sustainable network for the future;
calls on the Government to:
- ensure Government services continue to provide the backbone of a sustainable nationwide post office network;
- support An Post in the rollout of new services and the delivery of its strategic plan to ensure the financial viability of An Post and the continued fulfilment of its mandate to deliver a mail delivery service and a viable post office network; and
- ensure that An Post engages fairly with the 159 communities where postmasters are retiring to ensure post office services are appropriate to the local area and take into account the potential for co-location.”
I second the amendment.
I welcome the Minister. It is a very important debate about rural Ireland, rural post offices and where the service is going. It is important for us to acknowledge where we have come from. It was only a few months ago that we had to increase the price of stamps and put a new regime in place to safeguard An Post. An Post was five months away from going under. It provides a major service for rural Ireland and for our nation. It was in a financial situation that needed action. Our Minister acted appropriately to ensure An Post was safeguarded. It is important. Postal services in every nation in the world are under pressure because technology is changing to facilitate things such as Internet banking and email. The volume of mail has changed. There has also been major progress. An Post's parcel service has gone from strength to strength in the past few years and is becoming a major driver to ensure An Post can survive as an entity. It is very important to ensure that An Post survives as an entity.
There are proposed closures in the post office service in the next few months. In my village of Minane Bridge we have a post office. The postmistress, Anita Dempsey, was there for 37 years and last Friday she closed up shop. I spoke at that moment and I spoke when we closed down the shutters. There were mixed emotions but no bitterness because people have moved on to the next level and now use facilities such as Internet banking. The entity has changed. A small post office in a village of 34 houses is becoming nearly impossible to sustain and the community recognises this. In my constituency, four post offices closed and I received two letters about it. That indicates the demand of the public with regard to this issue.
The Minister has invested in the service to ensure the 960 post offices that are left can thrive and be sustainable. It is a significant investment and a significant plank of local and national policy. That is what we need to do now. We need to move forward to ensure our postal service and parcel service can progress. The services we are proposing can be part of it. It is a Government policy. It is part of what we have been doing for the past few years. It is in contrast to what Fianna Fáil has done. What Fianna Fáil did in post offices in the early 2000s must be outlined. There were hundreds of closures of post offices all over the country. When we had money, Fianna Fáil had no vision. If one looks for the Fianna Fáil vision on this, according to the party's spokesperson on this issue, Deputy Dooley, who spoke in the Dáil last night, it is now proposing that pubs should become post offices. That is not a policy. It is not logic or what rural Ireland wants. We want a strategic policy that protects our 960 post offices to ensure they can develop, not to move into pubs. Where is Fianna Fáil going with this policy? It is wing and a prayer stuff. It is unfortunate.
Irish society needs a clear vision. The Minister has given me that clear vision in the past few months and An Post is a better place because of it. We have seen the turnaround. We have seen this entity change its model and become successful. That is what society and rural Ireland wants. That is why I am so passionate about supporting the amendment I have moved. They are what we need to ensure that An Post and rural Ireland can develop.
Ní thógfaidh mé ocht nóiméad. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach seo. Tá sé an-deas é a fheiceáil. Le bheith fírinneach, tugaim an-tacaíocht dó go ginearálta mar is duine d'iarthar na hÉireann é. The Minister understands rural requirements. On this occasion, I support Senator Leyden's proposal. This has not been thought out at the level at which it should have been. I look at closing 159 rural post offices from an entrepreneurship point of view. We should look at what else should be done and how we can change the business model to make more of them. I agree a number of postmasters and postmistresses probably want to move on and retire. I accept that. I have seen it in the newspapers and have heard someone speak about it. There are a number who want to and can stay on. In other countries, for example in America, they have local tourism offices. I was on the board of Fáilte Ireland a good few years ago and it was closing local tourism offices all around the country in places such as Clifden that rely heavily on tourism.
A company called Nightline was founded in 1992. One guy was unemployed and from north county Dublin. They built the company up with an investment of £20,000 up to a turnover of €50 million a year. It was sold recently to one of the largest companies in the world, UPS. These guys developed Parcel Motel for Amazon. Local post offices can change their business model and become effective. I am not saying the Minister is doing this or that his passion will lead to it but it is not a matter of slash and burn. It is far from it but from a business point of view we should look at how we can change that business model to ensure viability. As other speakers have mentioned, they can also provide banking services. The Internet has moved at such a pace that most people now do a lot of their business over the Internet but in the case of the vast majority of people, as the Minister knows better than I do because of the Department he is working in, younger people are using the Internet but older people are not. If one looks at rural Ireland, the vast majority of the population is over 65 years of age. I did quite a lot of research on the issue over the summer.
There are parts of rural Ireland where more than 25% of the population did not do junior certificate examinations. There are implications that may not have been foreseen of closing some of those post offices. I hope the closures will be practical and driven by economic considerations. They have to produce value. At the end of the day, the person who pays for all of this is the taxpayer. Taxpayers have to get value for money. The Minister is focusing on that issue and the advice he is getting is focusing on it. We need to consider it more broadly. To some degree, I agree with a PSO, but I suggest strongly that it be modified because we have to create incentivisation and productivity for the post offices that remain.
I have a question that goes back to the role of the Minister in RTÉ and public broadcasting. There has been a lot of talk about the licence fee and post offices. When I was on the board of RTÉ, a significant number of people who should have been paying the licence fee did not pay it. It is a big issue. From memory I think it cost €13 million or €14 million a year, which is significant. If the model were changed, I would not pay post offices a fee for collecting the licence fees unless they reached service level agreements and service level standards. I do not believe in giving out State money for the sake of giving it out. There has to be accountability and productivity. What are the Minister's thoughts on that? Is he in a position to consider changing the business model for post offices that want to remain open? They are important. How can their business model change to make them productive and successful? Perhaps we could look at the Nightline model. There are entrepreneurs out there. There is an entrepreneur in all of us. We can change the business model to make it financially viable and worthwhile for the taxpayer and the local community.
I understand the Minister wants to come in at this stage. He has 15 minutes.
I thank colleagues who have contributed and know that more will speak later. My priority is to try to maintain as many post offices as possible. On Senator Ó Céidigh's point, we have a clear blueprint in place that will bring in new business. An Post is the only universal service obligation postal service in the world that has expanded its service in the past six months. It's parcel service has gone from five days a week to six days a week. One now sees An Post vans on Saturdays which one would not have seen this day 12 months ago. This time two years ago I was faced with a position where we were only going to see the post office van every second day. That was the proposal put to me. I have been able to turn it around completely by taking the Nightline approach to the mail service.
We are going further by looking at what new business we can put into the post offices with regard to banking. Next Monday, I will be in Carrick-on-Shannon to launch the new credit card for An Post. The company has also introduced a smart account. An Post is the only banking facility in the country where one could walk in tomorrow morning without preordering and get US dollars, sterling, Canadian dollars or Australian dollars because it is now expanding those financial services. An Post is engaged with the Government on providing new and additional State services, including services connected with TV licence and fines. We are looking at an offline avenue for all-of-government online services and we are exploring it with An Post. In the new year, the company will introduce personal loans and business loans for small businesses throughout the country. The company is transforming radically.
We cannot justify putting a PSO in place where 11 people a week are collecting their social welfare payments. Where would we set the threshold? Do we set it at 11 transactions a week or 20 transactions a week? Where do we draw the line? The line has to be drawn somewhere. I was not prepared to see a situation in which more than 600 post offices were forcibly closed. We have a voluntary package in place, which the postmasters and postmistresses sought. I did not seek it. I made it a condition that it would be a voluntary package.
I have to smile regarding the motion, which Fianna Fáil has tabled, because Senator Leyden was in my shoes quite a number of years ago. It was the policy back then and it has been the policy of successive Governments since not to subsidise and put a PSO in place for An Post. An Post is a commercial semi-State company.
After the decision of postmasters to retire from the business, An Post will be cross-subsidising approximately 500 post offices through its busiest post offices because the company wants to provide a service in rural Ireland. It should be remembered that this network of 960 post offices is twice as big as any other retail network in the country and continues to reach right throughout rural Ireland. By this time next year, every one of those post offices will have high speed broadband. Next Friday, we will launch the new digital assist pilot where we will look at the opportunities of developing an offline avenue for people who have not used the Internet. One in seven people in Ireland has never used the Internet. Why should they not have the opportunity to benefit from the Internet? Why should they not be able to save €200 and €300 on their electricity bill by logging on to switcher.ie or bonkers.ie? They will be able to do that through the pilot initiative being funded by the Minister for Rural and Community Development. The intention is to expand it over time. We have built a review process into it.
Senator Leyden specifically mentioned the village of Athleague and the particular issues there. The case has been made by colleagues in this and the other House with regard to other post offices that An Post should have looked at specific issues. There is a review mechanism in place. It is an independent review mechanism and no one can say the two individuals are biased in any way. One of them issued a critical public statement regarding my colleague the Minister for Rural and Community Development at one stage. They will review all of the information that communities want to provide on the unique circumstances of the particular community. Where a postmaster or postmistress decides to retire - and their decisions need to be respected and honoured - any retailer in that community can make contact with An Post and he or she will be considered if he or she wants to take on part or all of the post office services. If the person is not happy with the decision by An Post, it can be independently reviewed. The closing date for the review mechanism for communities was the end of September but it has now been extended to the end of October to give communities a chance to make the case. People need to remember that it is a voluntary decision.
Senator Leyden mentioned a public meeting I attended in Athleague. The postmaster spoke at that meeting and said the contract had been withdrawn, which was untrue. The contract remains there as long as the postmaster wants to stay in the business. On that occasion, it was announced that the closing date would be extended from 31 October to 31 January. It is the prerogative of the postmaster because it is a voluntary scheme. If a postmaster decides to withdraw from the voluntary scheme, that is also his or her prerogative. Many postmasters and postmistresses have given long service to their communities. Over the years, they have seen people bypass their post offices for one reason or another and we all have to acknowledge that it is the case. Technology has changed. Some postmasters and postmistresses do not want to retrain. We are talking about a significant investment in the post office network. A sum of €50 million will be invested in the post office network to bring new services and new technology into the 960 post offices in the State.
Some of those postmasters and postmistresses do not want to retain and one cannot blame them. They have been in this business for a long number of years. However, we are talking about an investment equivalent to €45,000 per post office in software development and hardware development to provide the new services that the post office needs to provide.
The issue of the television licence was mentioned. In fact, it was not I who suggested taking the television licence away from An Post. I made it crystal clear that people should continue to be able to pay their television licence in their local post office. It was the joint Oireachtas committee that suggested it be handed over to the Revenue Commissioners. It was an all-party committee that came forward with that proposal, not me. I have made it quite clear that I want to see more business going through post offices. In fact, if one goes back and checks the record, one will see that I was one of five Members of the Oireachtas who made a submission to the Kerr report. When it came to seeking views and solutions, few other colleagues, some of whom were quite willing to criticise me and attend public meetings, were prepared to put pen to paper; but I did. Thankfully, quite a lot of the Kerr report has been implemented. I compliment both Mr. Bobby Kerr and Mr. Turlough O'Donnell, who chaired the discussions between the IPU and the postmasters on my behalf.
The public record will show that I was one of those who fought vehemently against An Post getting out of the parcel business when it sold its SDS business because I felt that was the future for the company. I am lucky enough now to be the Minister in charge of communications who has a role and input into An Post. I am proud that the company is expanding its parcel service into every home in rural Ireland because now it is the only company in Ireland, and definitely the only company servicing a dispersed rural population anywhere in the world like ours, providing a door-to-door delivery service. One can have a parcel collected or returned from one's door by the An Post van and brought anywhere across the world. That does not happen anywhere else. In fact, so successful have ReturnPal and AddressPal been for An Post that many other mail services across the world are looking to buy that software. That is a new innovative development by An Post. In fairness, each of my colleagues here, no more than colleagues in Dáil Éireann, gave An Post the chance to do that by giving it the opportunity to raise the price of a stamp. Unpalatable and all as it was, it has given the company the opportunity to develop these new services and to invest €50 million in the post office network that will make a real difference.
This issue is not only about older people. We need to provide services for older people that they will use tomorrow, the day after that and the following day, not the services they used ten or 20 years ago. Holding back the tide will not solve the post office network issue. If anyone looks back, at the peak of the greatest economic boom in this country, 500 post offices closed and the policy decision taken at the time was to keep our mouths shut, sit on our hands and let them slowly ebb away. In one year alone, although I am open to correction, 2003, over 190 post offices closed. There was never a plan put in place even though everyone had it in his or her manifesto and was talking about doing something about the post offices. Senator Mac Lochlainn and myself often discussed the issue in the Dáil.
I want to see something happen. I am not prepared to sit back and leave 9,000 people to sign on the live register, which situation was put on my desk after I was appointed Minister. I want to see a thriving business into the future that can provide not only today's services in rural Ireland but tomorrow's services, in e-commerce, in digital services through the local post office and assist those who do not have access to the Internet or who are not IT literate. That is what we are doing.
This company will be transformed and it will give every one of those 960 post offices and postmasters and postmistresses a chance. That was outlined to the 1,100 postmasters and postmistresses before any of them made a decision in this regard and some of them made a call on it. One cannot blame them, if they have 11 social welfare payments a week being collected in their post office and they are being asked to continue that service. We are being asked as a State to pay a public service obligation when people themselves are not using the post office and yet we want the taxpayer to fund it - that is the proposal before me here today. We cannot, in all honesty, justify that. No one can justify that.
I will tell Senators exactly what I would be providing in rural Ireland if I had that extra money tomorrow morning. I would be supporting and investing more in the ambulance service because people are relying on the ambulance service every day and, as each Senator here will be aware, the ambulance service needs investment. If we were to put additional investment into rural Ireland that will have a direct impact on every family, home and community, I would put it into Loughglynn's ambulance service of which Senator Leyden will be aware, the ambulance service that is struggling in Connemara because it is being sucked in to Galway city and similar services right across the country. Government is about making decisions and I will not shirk my responsibility in making tough decisions.
I accept that it is not easy for the older people in those communities. I fully accept that but we need to try and keep a post office service. I was left in a position where I was facing the closure of 1,100 post offices and I was not prepared to accept that. I was looking at a situation where 9,000 people were about to lose their jobs because the company was going to run out of cash in five months. Those are the practical realities of what I was left with because successive Governments and successive Ministers failed in their responsibilities to work with the company and put a practical plan in place to use technology to bring new business into the service. Everyone paid lip-service to it and everyone talked about it. In fairness, across the table individual postmasters have said to me that they would not say publicly, but would say to me privately, that I was the first individual that they had sat opposite who was prepared to do something about the post office service and was prepared to put a plan and a viable future in place. Sadly, because I am prepared to do that, because I am prepared to give the post office network a future, I get criticised for it. That is the reason successive Governments did nothing. That is the reason successive Ministers did nothing. They knew well, while the communities are not the ones that are giving out as has been mentioned earlier, the politicians would give out because no one was prepared to be honest and accept that some of these post offices are just not viable.
Senator Leyden's colleague and spokesperson in Dáil Éireann, someone for whom I have a great deal of respect as a straight-talker, Deputy Ó Cuív, said on the floor of Dáil Éireann that anyone who said we could keep all post offices open was talking tommyrot, yet we have the same party tabling a motion looking for a PSO to keep some of post offices open. That funding should be put into rural Ireland. It is being put into rural Ireland in investment in a post office network that meets future needs and ensures that younger people, not only pensioners, start using the post office for e-commerce services and banking services. Where every bank has turned its back on rural Ireland, one can now go into any post office in the country and access one's AIB, Danske Bank or Ulster Bank account.
One will be able to access one's An Post credit card from next week and one's An Post personal loan or business loan from next year. This is bringing real, genuine banking services back into communities that have not seen them for a generation. That is what I want to do.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. I commend the postmasters and postmistresses on the wonderful job they have done in providing the social and economic hubs in these communities. Some of the language that has been used has been grossly unfair. They have the responsibility of the whole parish or the whole area and people are looking to them in a way that they expect them to keep their post office open and I think there is a gross unfairness about it.
I propose an amendment seeking to remove a farcical paragraph in the motion implying that pre-2011 post office closures were acceptable and by the book. I was astounded to hear Deputy Dooley, when asked on RTÉ about Fianna Fáil closing post offices, say it was not planned. Those were the exact words that he used. That was astounding. Has Fianna Fáil gone back to any of those communities which had a post office axed and asked them if they now accept that was necessary? It is ridiculous to state that previous closures of post offices were different or somehow justified. This Private Members' motion states that previous closures were based on population. This is simply not factual. The population living in the countryside grew from roughly 2.34 million in 1986 to 3.36 million in 2011, an increase of 30%. The national figure for that period was 20%. Ireland has a significant rural-based population. Rural dwellers make up 42% of the population, compared to an average 27% in the EU and 12% in Britain.
Fianna Fáil closed 732 post offices when last in government. That is nearly one a week. This is a new Fianna Fáil strategy to try to convince people that all was well before the election in 2011. It is even claiming that the health waiting lists were in a much better condition prior to 2011.
The closures overseen by the last Fianna Fáil Government were as much of an attack on rural Ireland as the current closures. It should at least have the honesty to admit that it was wrong then and it is wrong now. The communities that will be left without a post office service following the current closures, or which were left without one ten years ago, are not as easily fooled as it thinks. Fianna Fáil closed post offices to save money because it bailed out the banks. Simple, ordinary people paid with higher taxes and huge cuts in services. The post offices were also hit. The three major banks made a profit of €2.6 billion last year and they do not have to pay any tax on it. When we talk about decisions on finances and investment that need to be made in rural Ireland, we could ensure the banks pay their fair share of tax. Our colleague, Deputy Pearse Doherty, has shown how this could, and must, be done. Vulture funds have charitable status and millions of euro are going down the drain. I do not accept that it is about the allocation of resources, as the Minister said. It is about choices that different Governments have made and that the Government is making now in terms of whether we look after vulnerable populations or we continue to turn our backs on rural Ireland.
Up to 159 post offices across the State will be closed. Once the post office goes, what else will be left in the main street in many towns and villages? It is much more than a post office. This is symptomatic of the way rural Ireland has been treated. If a post office can disappear from a community, then the same threat hangs over many other services, such as schools and clinics. When I drive to Dublin every week, I pass through villages like Bellacorick, which once had a vibrant post office, pub and shop, but it is now a completely closed village. The consensus is that more services are needed in post offices. Current closures are a slap in the face to those working hard to come up with solutions.
I know what the Minister is saying and we all accept the practicalities and the realities but it was insulting to tell people from parishes like Ballycroy, where I was reared, that people now choose to go to Aldi and Lidl. I do not think that was right.
The Senator should read what I said.
I heard the Minister on Midwest Radio. He referred to Aldi and Lidl and it is almost like-----
No, the Senator should read the record.
Let me tell the Minister my interpretation of it.
The Senator should read the record.
It is almost like it is people's choice that they do not want a post office but that is not my experience in rural Ireland. That is why I believe the Government is not listening to those communities that are prepared to come up with their own solutions to keep their post offices open. There are many areas where people have offered to run the post office, or have presented viable options for co-location, but this Government, as usual, presents rural Ireland with a black and white decision to make.
I appeal to the Minister, in terms of the appeal process, to have a look at these areas to see what can be done and to work with people and communities. The approach to measuring whether 500 people live within the catchment area of the post office is entirely flawed. Ask anybody living in these areas and they will tell one of the dispersed nature of houses. As many of these villages have up to 600 or 700 people living in the outskirts, it does not take account of the true population.
As a member of the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach, I have attended many sessions examining the viability of the public banking sector in Ireland. As the Minister knows, there have been successful models operating in New Zealand, such as Kiwibank. I was in Germany last week to examine the Sparkasse model of public banking. Decisions to close the post offices mean that such a system would never have a chance to be tried out. I accept it when the Minister says this has been landed on his desk, but the Government has been in place since 2011. The Minister rightly says the Fianna Fáil Government, during boom times, had room for investment and creative thinking to offer extra, enhanced services within the post offices.
We need to look at this issue again. The final recommendations of the Kerr report have not been implemented yet, that the Government can act promptly to close the post offices. The Government, the same as all Governments before it, is turning its back on rural Ireland. It is difficult to explain to pensioners and elderly people without transport in their household. The Minister knows the public transport system is not there. He knows the cost for people to hire a taxi to go to the post office and how unaffordable that is. There is also the social interaction that people have in post offices. A much better job could have been done in advertising the services that are available within post offices and it is something that needs to be looked at without spending huge money. It could be as simple as putting it on the church bulletins to remind people of the services that are available through their post offices.
I encourage everyone to continue using their post offices in every way they can. I ask the Minister to look at this and the appeal process in the areas in which post offices need to be left because it is much more than a post office to us.
I thank Senator O'Reilly for letting me in at this stage as I have another commitment.
As somebody who represents a rural constituency and has attended many public meetings in villages around the country, I am very aware of the issues at play.
The motion seems to suggest the problem has only occurred during the terms of this and the previous Government but nothing could be further from the truth. It is a problem but it is not a recent one. As the Minister pointed out, almost 1,000 post offices were closed between 2003 and 2010, something I also knew from my time as a member of the communications committee during the last Government. I understand the number between 2011 and 2016 was somewhere between 30 and 40 so the facts do not stack up. The Government needs to support a sustainable and efficient post office network. That is what has been committed to and it is what the Minister outlined. I welcome many of the initiatives and innovations that will support communities across the country, particularly in rural areas. I understand the closures are as a result of negotiations between postmasters union and An Post.
There needs to be flexibility and innovative ways of providing services, particularly for elderly people in communities where public transport is not available. In Ballindine in County Mayo, local businesses offered to take up some of the services, although I am not sure they received a positive response. There need to be many new services, particularly financial services. In the past nine or ten years, we have seen the closure of bank branches in towns and villages and An Post could fill in for those services. The passport service has been of great value to An Post over the years but in recent years the special passport service which it offered took too long, although this might be because of issues related to under-resourcing in the Passport Office. Many Members will have taken calls on this from people who did not get their passport on time. There is a window of opportunity here for speeding up the passport service via post offices.
The public also has a role to play. In the past five or ten years, I have sat in halls where 500 people attended a public meeting and if just half of those people supported local post offices we would not have a problem. The Minister and the Government have outlined what they are doing but the public needs to respond. It is important we do not come back in a year or in two years' time to discuss this again. It has reached a tipping point and it needs to be sorted out now.
I am glad to hear of the services the Minister is putting in. We have talked about motor tax and various other things. The last two Governments picked up legacy issues that needed to be dealt with. This is another one and I am glad the see the Minister is dealing with it now. I wish him well in getting it right.
What Ireland needs now are strong, sustainable communities. Any erosion of the post office service erodes communities, rural and urban. I see that the Minister is wearing the sustainable development pin. Goal 11 of the sustainable development goals is for sustainable cities and communities. I am a regular user of my post office in Tramore, which is well managed and run by its postmaster, Mr. Martin. Tramore is a fast growing community and there are more than 11,000 people in the town now. When one queues up and looks at the noticeboard one sees information about what is happening in the local community and there is a high level of community engagement in the post office. I have always seen the post office in Tramore as a community centre.
In Kilmeaden, just outside Tramore, there is a campaign called Save Kilmeaden Post Office. The people behind it have put in an appeal because there are 2,000 people there and the community has come out in strength in the past few months to oppose the closure of the office. It has happened but a review is taking place. The postmaster has retired but Donal Hickson, who runs the centre next door and is a really successful retailer as well as being postmaster in another area, would like to take over the post office. I would like the Minister to look into this and other such cases where there is a viable option for a competent and experienced person to provide the service for the local community.
In respect of the Fianna Fáil motion, I agree with introducing a public service obligation, PSO, payment as this is crucial to the long-term health of post offices. We are using the PSO levy to subsidise fossil fuel burning, that is, peat for electricity generation. This is driving up greenhouse gas emissions, damaging human health and leading us to potentially massive fines for not meeting our climate and energy targets. How can the Government take the position that money for burning peat is okay, while money to keep the heart of our rural communities beating is a step too far?
In the programme for Government, the Government parties committed to creating a real local community banking system. That has largely been abandoned over the summer, with rowbacks on key elements that would make such a system a real success. Community banking would need proper capitalisation and appropriate lending rules in order to compete with commercial suppliers where possible. This is not what is being proposed and that is a pity. Community banking can still be a way to bring new life and relevance to our post offices and our communities, as can the provision of other public services through the post office network. I was talking to the postmaster in Tramore today and he spoke about the importance of the maintenance of social welfare payments, and the possibility of post offices being a centre for motor tax and for the register of electors. The post office staff could generate Government forms for customers and support customers in rural areas who find it difficult to download those forms. The staff could fill the forms out with the people concerned and return them to the Government, which would be an efficient way to get the completed forms into the system and make things run smoothly.
Having read the Fianna Fáil motion, I will support it if it comes to a vote today. I have received correspondence from the Gurteen post office action group, which is very concerned about the possible closure of the post office in Gurteen. I would like to make a representation on its behalf today.
When I spoke at a recent meeting of the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment attended by the Minister, Deputy Naughten, and the chief executive of An Post, I made it clear that there has been hypocrisy on the airwaves in respect of this matter. When I did some research in advance of that meeting, I discovered that the last time Fianna Fáil was in power - up to 2011 - it closed 755 post offices, or almost 40% of the total number of post offices at that time. Sinn Féin has submitted an amendment to this motion because it does not accept the hypocritical and untruthful nature of its wording.
Fianna Fáil claims in its motion that previous post office closures took place at a different time and in a different context and that it had not planned for this to happen. That is utter nonsense. As we know, the population in rural areas grew significantly throughout the short-lived period of economic boom, which was eventually destroyed by an over-reliance on developers and crazy lending policies. Fianna Fáil stood idly by while its policies, including its support for the postal services directive at European level, let our postal service be open to the decimation we have seen.
The last time Fianna Fáil was in government, 40% of post offices closed. Deputy Dooley had the audacity to go on the airwaves even though his party was in power when 755 post offices closed. One would think that Fianna Fáil opened 755 post offices, or that the number of post offices increased by 40% rather than decreased by 40%. It is an incredible brass neck. Those who are supposedly leading the charge for rural Ireland are the very people who decimated rural Ireland the last time they were in power. Their crazy economic policies led to the crash in the first place. All of that has to be said.
Fine Gael has been in power since 2011. We are approaching eight years of continuous Fine Gael power. Personally, I have a lot of regard for the Minister, Deputy Naughten. I think he is a very sincere person. I think he works very hard. However, I do not agree with the full assessment he has given here today. I believe there has been a complete lack of imagination about the role of the postal service and post offices in rural communities. I will give an example. It is proposed to close 18 post offices in the Minister of State's home county of Galway, which is the most affected county under this plan. My own county of Donegal is the second most affected county, with 17 proposed post office closures. To be honest, I accept that not every single one of them should be kept open. I think the level of protest in some cases is evidence of that. The protests that are taking place in certain locations serve as evidence that the local post offices can be saved because there is the desire to do so in those communities.
I am not being dishonest. I am not saying every single one of the 17 post offices in County Donegal that I have mentioned should be kept open. However, I emphasise that many communities where post offices have closed continue to have a strong and vibrant community infrastructure. There are community centres and community leaders in many of these areas. People talk about the New Zealand model, or the German community banking model. For the life of me, I cannot understand why there is not a greater focus on our credit union model, which has been exported across the world. It is a pretty fantastic model. I cannot understand why we have not looked at twinning credit union services with post office services in certain rural communities where post offices would not be sustainable on their own. We need to think outside the box. If a postmaster says that he or she cannot make a post office sustainable on its own in its current building, we should seek to put together a plan in the nearest community centre that involves credit unions, post offices and, possibly, social enterprises being based together in community hubs as a one-stop-shop. All of this has been put to the Minister previously in the Bobby Kerr report and in other proposals. Why are we asking people to travel such long distances for things like driving licences and motor tax? Why are those services and facilities not being based in one-stop-shops in many rural areas? I appreciate that the Minister, Deputy Naughten, is having a go at this.
I am being honest. I am not saying every single post office could be saved. If I am honest, I can think of some communities where people are not protesting and are not fighting to keep their post offices open. In quite a few cases, however, people are campaigning to retain their local post offices. We should be working proactively in such communities. We need to listen to people who are organising public meetings and coming out fighting for their postal service. We must find ways of pulling various services together. I have already listed the additional opportunities that exist with regard to credit unions, social enterprises and postal services. That is how we develop vibrant rural communities. We have to be honest. Despite the impact of the loss of so many services in rural communities, we still have strong rural communities in County Donegal because of the community leaders in local areas. There are halls in every parish or townland. I am sure other Members are visualising various townlands that have community centres and hubs. That is what we need to build on. That is the future of the postal network. I am not here to punch and slap the Government. I am here to confront hypocrisy. I am here to have an honest and serious conversation about the need to lean on the strengths of rural areas if we are to save the postal network in such areas.
It is good to see my constituency colleague, Senator Wilson, performing so well and so objectively in the Chair. Many people have put this debate in context by saying there is a historical basis to post office closures, which have been going on for years. I think that point has been very well made. Nobody can escape that reality.
The Minister, Deputy Naughten, made a very spirited address. I have had the privilege of working with him on the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment, among other briefs. I am aware that €30 million has been invested in An Post and that an unpalatable political step was taken when it was decided to increase the price of a postage stamp. This was done to arrive at the situation we are in today, where An Post is in a profitable position. The Minister and my party colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, are very committed to this process and are very sincere about doing the right thing.
I have a number of questions to which I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, will respond. I am anxious to be assured that the appeals system will be vigorous, will have teeth and that there will be victories in the system. By definition, there should be but the cynical view of the appeals system is that it is a form of window dressing. I do not want that to be the case and want to know that there will be a vigorous appeals system. We are all solution-focused here and I want to be assured that there will be a real, rather than just stated, opportunity for other businesses in a town or village to tender for a contract to replace a closed post office and to offer services. I would like the Minister of State to elucidate the point around the cards that would be available to pensioners to enable them to withdraw their pensions in cash from certain shops. Could these be made widely available?
I have declared myself a consistent supporter of An Post and was active when there was a threat to the six-day delivery service. I have done my best on that isue, both at committee level and elsewhere. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment because I am committed to post offices and to broadband. Indeed, that is why I opted for that committee in the first instance.
I have made a point privately to the Minister, Deputy Naughten, and will now make it publicly to the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, and to the House. We must understand the traditional rural, market town is the hub of a community. It is the focal point of a community and the centre of congregation. Of course, while we all want to prevent any possible post office closure by positive action, we must address the question of small towns losing post offices. In the context of appeals and of other businesses taking over, this should be looked at.
Small towns are the focal point for a wider hinterland or community. They are the centre for local businesses. In Killeshandra in Cavan, for example, the post office is threatened with closure. Lakeland Dairies, which is a major agrifood business and a major employer, is located nearby and there is a myriad of small and medium-sized businesses around Killeshandra. Kilnaleck and its catchment is an area of major intensive farming, particularly mushroom growing and is also important for tourism. Kilnaleck is a very important focal point for its hinterland. Mount Nugent village centre is an important tourist location in County Cavan and plays an important role as a hub and the same is true of Swanlinbar, a Border community with its new geopark.
I can only speak about my county, but a number of small towns are being hit by this decision. It is my contention, as I said to the Minister privately, that every possible step should be taken to ensure people in those areas do not suffer any loss of service. It is important that old age pensioners be able to access cash and other post office services. What I would like for Kilnaleck, Mount Nugent, Swanlinbar and Killeshandra is that each of them would have a comprehensive post office service.
I want to move on to discuss the idea of the expanded business model and the various recommendations in the Kerr report. I understand from the Minister, who is a very straight and honest man, that 17 recommendations in the Kerr report have already been implemented, with two more to follow. If we are going to implement the Kerr report and if we are really committed to the new business model and keeping the post offices open, where will we locate post offices if we take them out of small towns? Where will we have viable post offices if they are not viable in the towns I have mentioned like Killeshandra, Kilnaleck, Swanlinbar and Mount Nugent? Can they be viable anywhere, given the hinterland of the aforementioned towns?
It has been said there might be approximately 400 people in these towns but if one takes the perimeters around them and the ribbon developments around them, one is up to over 1,100 people in the case of Killeshandra and to around 1,200 in the case of Kilnaleck, for example. My colleague, Councillor Paddy Smith in Ballyjamesduff, has done in-depth research on this and has found that if one includes a very small area around these towns, one well exceeds a population of 500. I attended a meeting in Kilnaleck last week alongside Senator Wilson, who is equally committed to trying to do something for these towns. At that meeting we discovered that these towns have a hinterland that is also worth considering.
I will now turn to the issue of the business model. I am delighted that the six-day week is being preserved and that a parcel service is available on Saturdays. I am also delighted that a credit card facility is available, as well as a currency conversion service. It is welcome that personal and business loan facilities will be made available shortly. All of that must and should happen and must be maintained and supported. We must make positive contributions to this debate. There is no point in us coming in here in an Animal Farm manner saying "Four legs good, two legs bad", "All closures bad, all openings good", and so on. That sort of nonsense is for platforms and lorries at election time. We must talk sense.
That said, I note a lack of awareness in communities of the services available in post offices, particularly the newer services. A vigorous advertising campaign is needed and postmasters and postmistresses must be incentivised to inform customers in their catchment areas and to canvass for these services. There is a lack of awareness and insufficient take up of these services. I am a public representative and have had the privilege of being in this House for a number of years but were it not for the fact that I became involved in the debate a few weeks ago, I would not have known about one or two of these services myself. I did not know of the existence of the currency service, for example. I did not know about the availability of different currencies in post offices. If I was not aware of them then I suspect there is a general lack of awareness.
If one asks holidaymakers going to a destination outside the eurozone where they are going to get the necessary currency, they will tell one they will get it in the local bank. Awareness of services is important, as is maintaining the business model and widening the services available in each area. Marketing is essential.
I look forward to the Minister of State's response to the point about taking into account the small towns. If one closes a post office in a small town, it is an implicit admission that the entire service is gone. I accept the point that the existing postmaster or postmistress has a right to retire and to take the redundancy package but customers must be able to go into another shop. It cannot be a question of saying that the opportunity is there; we must actively seek another shop in these towns. We must make post office services available, including providing cards to pensioners in order that they can access their money. That would bring people into the other shops.
It is alleged that the possibility of generating an income is not available to other shops, but I do not believe that. It would be good for throughput and they must have a commitment to their village. I ask the Minister of State to elaborate on the potential income for other shops, either in the House today or privately. We have a duty to give potential bidders that information.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. It is always dangerous when one comes in at the end of the debate, especially when one follows in the footsteps of Senator O'Reilly, who is very eloquent. The debate so far has been particularly insightful.
I welcome this debate on the future of the post office network. What we should be talking about is the future of that network as our world evolves and changes.
I was in America during the summer and noticed the postal service was under pressure. I was in a small post office in a town in Cape Cod and I could not get over the number of people who were sending postcards. I grew up where Friday was pension day. My grandmother, God rest her, used to bring us to Joe O'Leary's post office in Knocknagree. It was her day out. There were also trips to the shop to buy groceries in the local community. I want to thank the postmasters for their role in Irish society, and for their involvement in this debate and in what the Minister, Deputy Naughten, is doing. Notwithstanding Senator O'Reilly's eloquence, it was refreshing to hear the honesty of Senator Mac Lochlainn. A part of me thought he was coming over to us and getting ready for Government because he was right.
I cannot believe it. The Senator has sold out.
Some post offices are not viable and could never be kept open, but I hope some will be kept open following the appeals process. As Senator O'Reilly said, that process should be open and transparent. Senator Mac Lochlainn was also right about the gargantuan hypocrisy of the people on the benches opposite. I know that some of us swear by Kickham's maxim about having pride in the local village but some of the contributions from Fianna Fáil were surprising from a party which closed 102 post offices in one calendar year, that is, 2002. In 2003 it closed 193.
That is not true. We did not.
Under its watch, there were 700 post offices closed - dúnta, locked up, the keys thrown away. Sometimes one does not like to hear the truth.
Senator Buttimer cannot handle the truth. The Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, will be heading off as Commissioner in the next year or so and Senator Buttimer can look forward to coming back into the Dáil at that point. I will not have to put up with him here after that.
Senator Leyden, please.
I certainly hope to join the Tánaiste in the Dáil to form part of the next Fine Gael-led Government.
With Sinn Féin.
He is doing an excellent job as Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. The debate tonight is about the post office network. The Minister has engaged and reached out. With the Kerr report and the various reforms introduced by Mr. McRedmond, An Post is in a better place today in terms of staff, mail centres, volume of business and profit. It is not all about profit and it must also be about the delivery of services to people. As other Members have said, we need to expand the remit of An Post into other services.
Why do people go into post offices? When did we last use one? Senator Ned O'Sullivan sent us all a post card during the summer, using An Post. How many people go into the post office to collect their child benefit, their social protection payments or their social welfare payments? As the Minister and Senators Mac Lochlainn and Lombard said, it is important that An Post deal with driving licences and, on behalf of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, acts as a one-stop-shop for passports where there is no passport office in the area.
The Minister, Deputy Naughten, deserves immense credit. He spoke about An Post almost collapsing 98 weeks ago, having just five months' cash and 9,000 people to be paid. Restructuring is about reconfiguration. It cannot be all about the attrition of services and staff. We are debating the importance of post offices to rural Ireland but this affects urban Ireland. In Cork city, no post offices are closing. We moved the post office from Bishopstown into the Wilton Shopping Centre. The office at Dennehy's Cross was closed, as was that at Victoria Cross. I hope Senator Leyden is listening because this was not done under the Government. Bishopstown and Wilton are suburban areas with big populations but people did not use the offices. The American postal system was going through a crisis because people did not use it. As public representatives, charged with trying to bring out policies for the betterment of society, we have to come up with ways of making the post office system better and more user friendly.
The independent appeals mechanism is important and there may well be post offices that can be used. It is a voluntary scheme and people can withdraw their decision to close. The Minister spoke about the need to embrace innovation and change and I am confident he will do so. I am equally confident that the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, will do so.
If we went back to 1984, would we envisage using email, the Internet and mobile phone devices to connect us to the furthest points in the world at the click of a button? Now we have to ensure the post office system reaches out to people with a debit card or a credit card. I used the An Post card in America in the summer. I put the money in before I left and withdrew money from the hole in the wall, or paid my restaurant bill, when I got there. It was simple. It is refreshing that we are being honest in this debate and recognise that the heart of the country has services to offer. We are of our people, whether we are urban or rural. None of us is isolated but we live i measc na ndaoine. This is about the next generation of An Post and how we can bring about further change.
I commend the Minister, Deputy Naughten, and the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, on their efforts to deliver a public service to support the new, modern Ireland. As Senator Mac Lochlainn said, Fianna Fáil closed a gargantuan number of post offices, not in the time of the recession but in the middle of boom and bloom.
Fianna Fáil seems to be in government, such is the attack on our party from Sinn Féin. I am surprised by this because our motion is solid and reasonable. Fianna Fáil never closed offices; people voluntarily did so. In this case a very attractive deal is being offered to ensure that 159 offices close. There is an element of duress in some cases, with people being told to leave and get the money or stay and get sweet damn all. A well orchestrated spin is being put on it. Fianna Fáil supported the post offices. I never closed an office and I was in the Department for some nine months. I was appointing people and appointing more people, and disappointing some.
From the length and breadth of Ireland the files came, I got the recommendation of the postmaster in the area and duly signed the order. I was signing orders right up to the eve of the general election of November 1982. Of course, one could not disappoint those who wanted to be appointed. In most cases, they were political appointees. Every time Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were in power, they appointed postmasters of a particular persuasion. Let us be quite honest about it. We can be honest about these matters because I was there in the Department.
None of that.
Senator Leyden, to continue, without interruption.
Unless I interrupted myself, I did not hear much of an interruption.
Repeat the last paragraph.
I did not hear much of an interruption.
Senator Leyden, to continue, without interruption. He did not interrupt anybody else deliberately.
One should grow up and smell the roses.
I cite the post office in Ballaghaderreen as an example. It was the last day of the Fine Gael empire and Mr. Patrick Cooney, a Deputy from Athlone and Minister at the time, informed the local Fine Gael activists that the post office in Ballaghaderreen was given to the Fine Gael activist in the area. There was another person in the area and the poor late bishop wrote in seeking that that person would pertain to the post office in Ballaghaderreen. I came into the office and I got a representation then from a Fianna Fáil councillor who happened to be connected to the Fine Gael activist in Ballaghaderreen. Of course, it was a choice of having a controversy on the issue. I could appoint and fire or not appoint, but the verbal statement by the Minister to an activist in the area was seen to be in that Department a kind of a contract. I just give a little insight in life.
What did Senator Leyden do?
I retained the status quo because I did not believe in getting involved in any of those controversies. As Senator Buttimer will be aware, in my six and a half years in Ministry I never got into controversies in any Department in which I served. The Senator can check that out. I was clear in my mandate and my responsibilities. I was committed in the Departments of Posts and Telegraphs, Transport and Health and, indeed, as Minister of State with responsibility for trade and marketing negotiating the Single European Act, which, by the way, was very effective. To put them in context, I could write a book about what went on at the time. I appointed a particular appointee in a particular town in Sligo and met the person who did not get it. I asked, "How's life?" "How's life", he said, "when you did not give me the post office?" I could not tell him what the report stated about the situation - I will go no further than that.
Fianna Fáil never actually closed post offices. Let us be quite clear about it.
Seven hundred and twenty five, or 40%.
Senator Leyden said it with sincerity. It was 193 in one year.
It was 40% the last time Senator Leyden's party was in government.
Senator Leyden may conclude now because he has only a minute remaining.
There is a long history. It was like rate collectors, by the way. We all know that rate collectors were appointed totally on a political basis in every county in Ireland, including Galway. That system has ceased at long last. They were extremely political appointees at the time. We all know that VEC members were political appointees as well. We have moved on.
Full of sophistry.
Fianna Fáil Members did not close any post office; people voluntarily decided to resign. In this case, let us be quite clear about it. We all accept that the postmasters' union, with respect to it, negotiated a sweetheart deal for the post offices which they are entitled to. They are entitled to offer their resignation on the basis of either ill-health or retirement but the Minister and the Government should protect areas where a viable office can be retained. In places such as Athleague, Loughglynn and other areas in counties Roscommon and Galway, for instance in Glinsk, somebody else should be offered the position where there is potential viability, as outlined by the Minister. I note the Minister stated that the office in Athleague will not have to be closed and they can decide to change their mind or not proceed until 31 January 2019. Making a representation on behalf of my own parish, I am quite satisfied with what the Minister said in that regard.
On an appeals system, I do not know whether the Minister will tell us who they are. I would like to know who are the so-called independent persons who will assess whether a post office should be retained in a village. It should be publicly announced who they are in order that we can have confidence. I would prefer to appeal to the Minister than to persons whose knowledge of rural Ireland I know nothing about.
I thank the Acting Chairman for chairing the debate so well. Nobody wants to see any closures. Nobody wants to see difficulties in rural areas. We are all fighting the one fight. However, I am very disappointed with my estranged colleagues in the Sinn Féin Party who came from the same tree. We branched off in 1926. We went non-military. That is the difference. We did not keep the military wing. We disengaged then, disbanded our military wing and went legitimate. Thanks be to God, Sinn Féin has gone in that mould also and there will be an unholy alliance with the Fine Gael Party. I cannot believe Cumann na nGaedheal and the Blueshirt party would join Sinn Féin to form a Government.
- Burke, Colm.
- Burke, Paddy.
- Buttimer, Jerry.
- Byrne, Maria.
- Coffey, Paudie.
- Coghlan, Paul.
- Conway, Martin.
- Feighan, Frank.
- Hopkins, Maura.
- Lawlor, Anthony.
- Lombard, Tim.
- McFadden, Gabrielle.
- Mulherin, Michelle.
- O'Donnell, Kieran.
- O'Mahony, John.
- O'Reilly, Joe.
- Reilly, James.
- Conway-Walsh, Rose.
- Daly, Mark.
- Devine, Máire.
- Leyden, Terry.
- Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
- Mullen, Rónán.
- O'Sullivan, Grace.
- Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
- Warfield, Fintan.
- Wilson, Diarmuid.
As amendment No. 1 has been agreed to, amendment No. 2 cannot be moved.