Nostalgia and political opportunism will not save rural Ireland. But better planning and the availability of essential services, such as broadband, might just turn the tide. A low population density is the greatest obstacle to rural development and, in the case of small towns and villages, this weakness has been exacerbated by extensive once-off housing in the countryside. Instead of concentrating available human capital in villages, families have been motorised and encouraged to patronise distant towns and supermarkets.
A survival plan negotiated by the Postmasters Union and accepted by eighty per cent of its members will see 159 uneconomic rural post offices close on a voluntary basis this year. An investment of €50m will be made in the remaining network of 960 offices. The deal has been criticised by opposition politicians as "an assault on rural Ireland" along with demands for its rejection. Postmasters who accepted the severance package of €8-9 m are mainly elderly and good luck to them. If others wish to take over the business, they can apply for a new licence.
Those politicians who were most vociferous in promoting once-off housing in the countryside are now complaining about its knock-on effects in terms of reduced services, closed licensed premises and drink driving laws. A social services obligation to keep all post offices open has been suggested, at an addition annual cost of €8m. Nothing appears to have been learned from the economic crash, its causes and its dire consequences.
A fine line exists between working to re-invigorate community spirit, beset by loss of confidence and a falling population, and exploiting it for political purposes. Remember Fr McDyer and the 1960's Save the West campaign? He delivered for Donegal and gave heart to other areas. The West is still there. And it still needs saving. That will not be achieved, however, by keeping marginal post offices open.
Some people will be discommoded by post office closures. That is unfortunate. But 'getting a lift to town' is not a big deal in rural Ireland. As for providing a social centre for elderly neighbours, that should not be a function of An Post.
Commuting to work in larger urban centres has become a way of life for most people, including part-time farmers, in western counties. That will continue. But an opportunity to work from home, through the provision of high-speed, dependable broadband could attract stressed city families, particularly when there is the added incentive of affordable housing, welcoming schools and a relaxed environment. Increasing the populations of small towns and villages by attracting outsiders with business experience and skills represents a win-win situation. It is already happening on a small scale. Incentives and official encouragement are needed to accelerate the process.