Saturday 29 April 2017

Bickering ministers are branded 'childish' in row over future of post offices

Tensions have been running high between Communications Minister Denis Naughten (pictured) and Rural Affairs Minister Michael Ring for several weeks. Photo: Tom Burke
Tensions have been running high between Communications Minister Denis Naughten (pictured) and Rural Affairs Minister Michael Ring for several weeks. Photo: Tom Burke
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

A very public spat has broken out between two ministers over who is responsible for securing the future of the troubled An Post network.

Tensions have been running high between Communications Minister Denis Naughten and Rural Affairs Minister Michael Ring for several weeks - but spilled onto the airwaves yesterday.

Mr Naughten said his Government colleague "threw in the towel" by asking the Cabinet to formally acknowledge the job of sorting out the postal network lies with the Department of Communications.

But Mr Ring quickly hit back, claiming the Independent minister had been trying to "shirk his responsibility".

Government sources last night expressed concerns about the impression two ministers publicly arguing will give to the electorate.

"We are already struggling to convince people this arrangement is working and then they start fighting on the radio over who gets to deliver bad news stories. It's childish," said one senior source.

A separate clash is also brewing over who takes overall responsibility for the roll-out of the National Broadband Plan. This is considered to be a "good news story" for the Government and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe has been tasked with refereeing the dispute between Mr Naughten and Heather Humphreys.

The Irish Independent understands the An Post row dates back to a Government memo dated July 19, 2016 which "transferred responsibility for the post office network from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment to the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs".

Mr Naughten took this to mean that Ms Humphreys and Mr Ring were in charge of the area. However, Mr Ring has argued that legal responsibly still lay with Mr Naughten.

The clash comes ahead of the publication of the McKinsey report on the future of An Post, which is believed to suggest the closure of up to 500 offices.

Closing even a fraction of that number would lead to a massive backlash against the Government.

Mr Ring oversaw the commissioning of the McKinsey report and two others into the future of An Post but says he has no legal powers to bring about policy change.

"I was given three jobs to do. I did them and I can do no more," he said. Late last week he wrote to a group of rural TDs stating his only duty was "to develop policies to support the overall sustainability of the network".

"Overall responsibility for the postal sector, including the governance of An Post, falls under the remit of Minister Denis Naughten," he said.

Yesterday, Mr Naughten said he was "quite happy" to be the lead minister for An Post.

"I want to deal with these up front and that's what I'm about," he said.

On March 28, the Cabinet agreed that Mr Naughten would take full charge of the post office situation. A spokesperson for the minister said that in the interests of clarity he "requested the Cabinet to reverse the Government decision of July 19, 2016".

The minister said: "The idea was to rejuvenate and transform the post office network, to ensure it was a viable entity into the future and now that responsibility has been transferred back to me.

"I'm quite happy to take it, I've said that categorically at Cabinet."

Irish Independent

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