The Government's latest response to concerns about the sustainability of the State's post office network was little more than a recipe for doing nothing, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications has heard.
Irish Postmasters' Union general secretary Brian McGann said he was not satisfied with a proposal from Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte to have the cabinet subcommittee on social policy examine if the post office network could provide services that would turn it into a "front office of government".
Mr McGann said the proposal, outlined in a speech last night, was a case of “kicking another can down the road” and that a clear plan of action was required as much of the post office network was in danger of collapse.
“We wanted action and got a vague and unspecific promise,” he said.
Fine Gael TD Noel Harrington, a long-serving postmaster and union member, said an examination by the cabinet subcommittee of the issue was different to a working group being established within a department.
Mr McGann replied by asking when the last time the cabinet subcommittee on social policy last published an action plan.
In his submission to the committee, Mr McGann said the fact that An Post recently won a contract to deliver welfare payments for two years, potentially rising to six, did not mean "that everything is rosy in the garden" as the Department of Social Protection was seeking to move to an electronic payments model.
Mr McGann said the union was “gravely concerned” that the sustainability of the post office network would be undermined by a switch to e-payments to such an extent that hundreds would have to close.
“This will involve forcing many of the 51 per cent of people currently receiving their payments over the counter to move to using a bank account,” he said.
Mr McGann claimed that, despite winning the contract, business was being "driven out" of post offices to the banks by the department. He cited a letter raised by a postmaster in Bantry, Co Cork informing a welfare applicant that they had to submit bank account details before their eligibility could be decided on.
Mr Harrington said he understood the letter referred to by Mr McGann had not been regularly circulated by the department.
Mr McGann expressed concern about An Post and Tesco partnering to deliver services through the supermarket's network and Mr Rabbitte pointing to a "phenomenon of retail concentration".
He said that it appeared Mr Rabbitte and the Government were presiding over the death of the community and that the programme for government promised that the network of post offices would be maintained.
Independent TD Michael Healy Rae, a postmaster in Co Kerry, said Mr Rabbitte's speech on post officces last night sounded like a death knell for the network.
Fine Gael TD Paudie Coffey said he believed people would not understand the value of the post office until it was gone and that packing hundreds into parish halls to complain "after the horse has bolted" was not the answer.
Sinn Féin TD Michael Colreavy said it was "disturbing" to hear the Government was putting pressure on people to accept welfare payments through electronic funds transfers.
He said that if An Post and postmasters needed to develop a business model and that if they stood still against the move to electronic platforms it would be like “trying to keep the tide out with a rake, it won’t work.”
Mr McGann said postmasters were not attempting to stop the tide but rather needed the tools to provide the public with the services they required.
The Irish Postmasters' Union is to hold a demonstration outside Leinster House this evening ahead of a Dáil vote on the issue of post offices at 9pm.