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Noel Whelan: Post offices help take edge off digital divide

Postmasters have shown an unrivalled capacity to adapt and compete

This week finally saw positive efforts to address the existential risk to the post office network and the postal delivery system as we know it. Minister for Communications Denis Naughten announced that the Government would provide An Post with a €30 million loan as part of a restructuring plan which would include a commitment to continuing a five-day delivery service and to supporting the post office network.

I have declared here before a particular interest in this policy area. I grew up in a post office in a small rural village in south Co Wexford. My mother ran the post office there for more than 50 years. One of my sisters runs it now.

We also ran a shop at the premises until local independent small shops became unsustainable. Together the business provided a necessary, if modest, second income which was badly needed in a household where there were 14 of us.

Our post office also provided much to the local community. It was a weekly social hub for older generations who came to collect retirement or old age pensions.


It was a reference point for details of which of the GPs in the neighbouring parishes were on duty on any given weekend. It was the equivalent of a village call centre for details on deaths or local events. It was a tourist or information office for all those visiting, those lost looking for directions or those who had just moved into the area.

It was a place of dignity and friendliness for the hundreds who weekly collected their unemployment benefit there at the height of the economic recession in the 1980s. It was a parcel hotel before the concept was ever imagined in its modern form.

It was a hive of local community activity and social engagement.

Quieter now

The post office is quieter now, although not as quiet as the Garda station next door, which is only open occasionally, or other small businesses which have since closed. Yet there is still a steady stream of visitors to the post office for a range of State and non-State services.

The recent campaigns to sustain local post offices are not driven by sentimentalism or romantic nostalgia

Notwithstanding the option of payments into bank accounts, hundreds each week still prefer to collect their social protection payments at the post office.

Notwithstanding the rise in computer literacy and internet access – albeit at slower speeds in rural areas – dozens still call to the post office each day for human assistance to double check they have completed a passport form or some other application correctly before sending it off.

The post office is today a one-stop shop for confidential guidance about public services, postal needs or help with various financial transactions.

The fact that these services are on hand locally does something to take the edge off the digital divide which exists in our society, and which would be wrong to see as merely generational.

The recent campaigns to sustain local post offices are not driven by sentimentalism or romantic nostalgia. In a recent radio interview the chief executive of An Post, David McRedmond, implied as much when, in defending the closure of some post offices, he said: “We can’t treat this as something that is just set in stone; treat it as some kind of theme park, where you keep everything exactly as it was 100 years ago.”

Adapt and compete

Those campaigning to sustain post offices see them as modern working enterprises, not local tourist attractions. Far from being resistant to change, postmasters have shown an unrivalled capacity to adapt and compete.

Post offices are now digitally networked. The systems behind the counter are now completely computerised. Today’s post offices process payments on Garda fines and utility bills, they conduct transactions for customers of three of the commercial banks. They sell everything from gift vouchers to foreign currency cards.

The only thing which is traditional nowadays at the post offices is the friendly human engagement.

As Bobby Kerr put it in one of his reports for the Government: "As other industries consolidate and contract, gaps are emerging that An Post and postmasters can take advantage of."

One of the key innovations in that regard is a new Smart Current Account which An Post itself is launching. The movement by An Post more directly into banking not only makes commercial sense but will also help to alleviate the impact of the fact that the banks themselves are decimating their branch networks. Some of those banks still open don’t offer any counter service after noon.

New competitions

An Post still faces real challenges to secure its commercial survival given the structural changes and new competitions in the postal industry. If the post office network is to survive, and to continue to perform its important community role, the company cannot progress purely on the basis of a solely commercial mandate. The Government, as shareholder, must also give the company a social objective.

This week’s funding is a step in the right direction.