At some point next year, all 2.2 million individual addresses in the Republic will be assigned their own seven-digit post code – to be known as an Eircode – that will identify them from all others in the State.
It has been a long time coming. According to Liam Duggan, chief executive of Eircode, the Capita subsidiary the State is paying between €15 million and €16 million to introduce and apply the system, the Republic is the only Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nation that does not have a post code.
Over the last 18 months, it has been designing the code and building a database of addresses to go with it, drawing on 100 million different entries in 20 different public-sector databases. Towards the middle of next year it will mail all homes, businesses and organisations in the State telling them their Eircode.
Creating the code meant tackling two peculiarly Irish problems. The first is that 35 per cent of addresses in the Republic are non-unique. In rural areas, neighbours on one stretch of road often have the same address. To complicate this further, they can sometime be members of the same family, and so have the same surname.
The second is that single addresses can have a number of permutations, all of which will work when it comes to having post delivered. So “Serpentine Avenue, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4” or “Serpentine Avenue, Sandymount, Dublin 4” or “Serpentine Avenue, Dublin 4” will all work, as will the Irish version of all three, bringing the total to six.
"You can have six or seven different versions of one address and An Post will deliver to all of them," he says. A lot of this is down to the State company's employees knowing their own areas well. The difficulty is that the lack of that knowledge leaves competitors at a disadvantage.
It has also created other problems. Duggan says there is a story, possibly apocryphal, that at least one person cashed in on this ambiguity by taking out five different mortgages on one home from five different banks, using slightly different addresses to prevent each lender detecting what was going on.
Similarly, people have ordered goods such as iPads, and, once they have failed to turn up, been told that they were delivered and that somebody signed for them. “Because of the ambiguous nature of addresses, there is an element of fraud that happens here,” he argues. “We do not have official addresses. Other countries have official structures for their addresses, what should appear on each line, but we do not have that.”
So, will Eircode change that? “No, we are not asking anybody to change their address,” he stresses. So what will it do? The code has two elements, the first is three digits: letter, number, number, which is a route key, based on the national road network, identifying the area. The second is a random, four-digit mix of letters and numbers that pinpoints the precise address, whether it is a house, an individual apartment in a block or a business premises. The final product will look like this: A65 F4E2.
Eircode uses 25 letters and numbers, which can produce up to 400,000 different permutations.
The largest route-key area has 80,000 individual addresses, while the smallest has 2,000, so there is ample scope to add new ones as they are needed. The company’s database will hold the code, the address’s various permutations and the global positioning co-ordinates.
It is keeping the Dublin postal districts, so the address on Serpentine Avenue will have the route key D04 while one in Finglas will have D11. Duggan maintains that this makes sense, but there seem to be political concerns at work here. Namely, the Government does not want waves of residents in well-heeled suburbs making angry calls to radio phone-in shows complaining that changing their post code has hit the properties’ value.
One Senator wrote to Eircode asking it not to “do away with Dublin 6W”. As it happens, the company has not, the area’s route key will be D06W, the only four-digit route key in the city. Should narrow concerns such as this influence what is supposed to be a national initiative?
“It is a concern of the Minister’s,” Duggan says. However, he emphasises that the capital is keeping its postal areas for practical purposes. “The reason the Dublin postal districts are being used is that they are being used currently for logistical reasons.”
In theory at least, the system should benefit any business that delivers to postal addresses, the general population, who can expect mail to be delivered more efficiently and with fewer mistakes, and the emergency services. Duggan points out that in rural areas it can take five minutes to identify the actual address from which a 999 call is made, compared with 30 seconds in an urban area.
The National Ambulance Service says that it welcomes the introduction of a proposed postcode system “as it will enable address verification, thereby assisting services in reaching patients in a timely manner”.
However, not everyone agrees, John Kidd, national chairman of the Irish Fire and Emergency Services Association, a trade union with 1,200 members, says it will not be any use for callouts for accidents on roads or anywhere other than inside buildings. Duggan responds by pointing out the system is meant to identify addresses, not points on roads or motorways.
He and Neil McDonnell, general manager of the Freight Transport Association of Ireland, whose members include the likes of Fedex and UPS, have also locked horns.
McDonnell argues that Eircode will not work and so the big delivery companies are not going to use it. His criticisms are focused on the fact that, as the identifiers for each property are random, they bear no relationship to each other and are useless for planning and routing.
“The intelligence is in the database,” Duggan says, pointing out that the GPS co-ordinates plus the address’s aliases are all contained within that.
“If you want to deliver to a non-unique address, this will help you do that, there is nothing else out there that will do that.” He suggests that McDonnell’s members were hoping that Eircode would resemble the UK system.
“This is better than the UK postcodes as they identify clusters of 12 to 14 addresses, while Eircode identifies the actual address.”
Eircode wants to sell the database – that is, code, address and GPS co-ordinates – but no personal information to businesses to pay its way.
Reports claim it will be looking for a minimum price of €5,000. In fact, minimum subscriptions are likely to be less than €200, while there will be a certain amount of free access on its website. The company has submitted its price plans to the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, and is waiting for that to be signed off.
Another criticism is that we should have used a digital system based on GPS co-ordinates.
Recipe for chaos
“That is a recipe for chaos,” he argues. Duggan points out that the Republic could be divided into billions of co-ordinates, while there are just 2.2 million addresses. “If you have a big enough house you could have five GPS co-ordinates,” he says. Ultimately, he maintains that there would still have to be a database identifying the addresses at each co-ordinate.
Some of the organisations pushing this approach have systems that they are interested in selling.
The Eircode chief says that they are entitled to do this. “If they want to sell their system in competition with us, then we don’t have a problem with that.”