Miriam Lord: Leo gets to grips with post truth

Taoiseach cites French voting patterns as a reason to keep post offices from closing

The An Post logo. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien

The An Post logo. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

The French, they owe us. They owe us big.

We haven’t forgotten Paris and Thierry Henry and that incident in the penalty box when the footballer’s famous “hand of frog” deprived Ireland of a deserving place in the World Cup finals.

That heartbreaking night was in Irish minds again on Tuesday when the playoff draw for next year’s tournament was held in Zurich.

Can France ever make amends?

Yes, maybe that country can.

Because the French may hold the political key to reversing the sad decline in Ireland’s network of post offices.

They might also prove responsible for the eventual reopening of rural Garda stations and train stations.

Here’s why.

Kerry’s Michael Healy-Rae may have been correct when he told the Dáil that the closure of a post office “takes the heart and soul out of that community”. But business is business, and while a load of pensioners losing their weekly social lifeline of a trip out the house to collect their pension is regrettable, well, there you are.

And with employment levels increasing all the time, fewer and fewer people are going to post offices to sign on for their social welfare payments.

As a result, it seems there isn’t enough work to keep these businesses ticking over, even if they provide a very valuable outlet for all the people who don’t have to get up early in the morning and go to work, and all those people who do but still like to call in and have a chat.

But yesterday, the Taoiseach advanced a hitherto unmentioned reason not just for retaining our post offices, but for opening more.

Electoral asset

Post offices are a valuable electoral asset. They win elections for government parties.

Not surprisingly so, Leo Varadkar is keen to hang on to them.

Healy-Rae, himself a postmaster, pleaded with him during Leaders’ Questions to do something to halt the closures. In these changing times, new ways of generating business must be considered. Community banking, in his view, is one of the ways to go.

Michael Healy-Rae peered over from under his cap, puzzled. What in the wide earthly world has this got to do with  Ventry, Gneeveguilla and Lyreacrompane?

He is fed up with Dáil responses on the issue, which always seem to concentrate on the large number of post offices closed by Fianna Fáil when it was in power. What is needed now from the Government is policy and direction.

Leo assured him that he is all for saving and beefing up the system. He’s thought very deeply about it, albeit in a very Varadkar kind of way.

“I read interesting analysis, not too long ago, of politics in France,” he began, as Healy-Rae peered over from under his cap, puzzled. What in the wide earthly world has this got to do with concerns in places like Ventry, Gneeveguilla and Lyreacrompane?

“And in France, the people who are most likely to vote for the Front National, for extreme right – or even extreme left – parties, are those who live furthest away from the post office, a Garda station or a train station.”

Richard Boyd Barrett of Solidarity/People Before Profit pricked up his ears.

The Taoiseach continued: “And I think, in many ways, the closure of post offices across rural Ireland – and the closure, indeed, even of Garda stations across rural Ireland – to many people is the State retreating and the State and the public sector abandoning them. And I’m very aware of the sensitivities in communities when a post office is closed: they feel that the State has pulled out and pulled away from them and doesn’t care about them anymore.”

He had the attention of all sides now.

“And that’s why – eh, one of the reasons – that we are determined to maintain and secure the post office network into the future.”

We can see it now.

Special force

Tout suite! Set up a working group, commission a report, come up with a plan. Establish a special force of Hold On To Post Offices Teams. Then, at a special ceremony in Dublin Castle, give every county in Ireland its own HOTPOT.

Genius.

The Fianna Fáil leader understood what he was saying.

“Reopen Stepaside, ” shouted Micheál Martin, in a reference to Minister for Transport Shane Ross’s successful crusade to have his local Garda station reopened.

It all makes sense now.

Then Leo regressed slightly, pointing out that the rate at which post offices are closing has slowed considerably, not like when the other crowd was in power and 721 were closed.

Fianna Fáil’s Eugene Murphy made a somewhat unwise interjection.

“There aren’t too many left to close now.” He probably didn’t mean it as a boast.

The Taoiseach drove home his point. “Under Fianna Fáil, post offices were closing 20 times faster than they are closing at present.”

Pensioners, Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley reminded Leo, are the ones who used to get up early in the morning

Kevin O’Keefe took up where his colleague Murphy left off.

“We were building motorways.” (And closing post offices.)

There is, of course, an important technology element to the situation. Leo recalled that when he was minister for social protection he reversed the policy of encouraging recipients to use electronic transfer, giving “pensioners the right to choose whether they want to go electronic or go to the post office. The reality is almost all of the modern-day pensioners turning 66 today want to get paid into their bank accounts.”

Get up early

Pensioners, Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley reminded Leo, “are the ones who used to get up early in the morning.”

Technology also surfaced during discussion on the response to Monday’s Storm Ophelia, when all parties had nothing but praise and gratitude for the many public servants, volunteers and private sector workers who worked so hard to ensure the safety of the public.

Labour’s Brendan Howlin summed up the mood: “All these people deserve our great thanks, as does the Government. The Government acted with calm throughout this particular episode. The Taoiseach can be happy with the work of his Government during the past 48 hours.”

Brendan wondered if the public alert system could be improved so people could get more information on how to respond.

The Taoiseach said this area would be investigated. “Certainly, SMS is used much less frequently than it was in the past. It’s probably dying out as a technology and people tend to use WhatsApp and Internet messages and so on . . .”

Maybe Leo will set up a national WhatsApp group.

What do the French do?