As Minister, I am responsible for the postal sector including the governance of An Post. I am acutely conscious of the value placed by communities in both rural and urban areas on services provided by post offices and am concerned to ensure the needs of those communities continue to be met. As part of the strategy for modernising the post office network, An Post has established a dedicated business unit within An Post, An Post Retail. Last week An Post announced its plans for a modernised post office network. The vision centres around the availability of new services in a modernised, revitalised network. Such services will include a better range of Government services, financial services and e-commerce services for shoppers and small businesses. The announcement by An Post is supported by an agreement reached with the Irish Postmasters Union, IPU, executive following three months of intensive negotiations under the guidance of Mr. Turlough O’Donnell SC. While I am conscious that final acceptance of the agreement is still subject to a ballot of IPU members, the announcement represents a positive first step in reinvigorating our national post office network and making it a viable service that meets the needs of communities across the country, particularly in rural areas.
Operational matters relating to the company’s retail business, including the post office network, are matters for the board and management of An Post. I understand An Post has not made any definite decision on post office closures but there is no doubt that the move to electronic transactions has affected the post office network. Changes to the footprint of the post offices network, where they occur in the longer term, will be a consequence of the modernisation process as opposed to an objective of the modernisation process. That means over the next four years, some post offices may close, but that is solely a matter for An Post and the postmasters to work out through a defined process. The fact that there will be no compulsory closures of post offices is a highly significant outcome of the negotiations. The deal will see An Post invest €50 million in growing and modernising the network and includes agreement on a protocol which I specifically sought to help manage the modernisation of the network in a transparent and community focussed manner. IPU members will be balloted on the proposals later this month.
I am also pleased to advise that Government funding of €80,000 has been secured, through the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, for the roll-out of a pilot digital assist scheme. Ten post offices will be equipped to help citizens with online Government interactions. The ten pilot schemes will be located in rural post offices and will be in place later this year. Given the challenges it is facing, the company will have to pursue an ambitious agenda across its various business areas and there is likely to be significant change and new business models implemented in the coming years. This should be viewed positively as it will result in a solid, sustainable business future.
While financial and structural challenges remain, achieving a common view of the steps to be taken to regenerate the network is of great significance as the company rebuilds and takes action to secure the future of the company and the network. The agreement is a significant milestone and shows that An Post, the IPU and postmasters have the potential to work together to deliver a viable and sustainable future for the post office network to the benefit of all parties and the public.