Liam Fay: Post offices are too successful to be allowed survive, it seems
Let Us Pay. Community Wants Motor Tax. Social Welfare not Government Welfare. A Safe Place To Save. As the placard slogans indicated, Wednesday night's demonstration against post office closures, which saw hundreds of people gather outside Leinster House, was a remarkable event.
The rally was powered by something very rare: a public desire to help rather than hinder government. Protesters were actively demanding the strengthening of a service to facilitate the efficient payment of taxes. The Irish Postmasters' Union (IPU), which organised the protest, was seeking neither subsidy nor bailout. In the most unusual feature of all, the demo was attended by users of a financial institution who do not claim to be victims of a swindle.
Atmosphere-wise, the event was more street party than street protest; a good-humoured knees-up with live ceili music. Clips on the evening news showed independent Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath, a former set-dancing champion, jigging about with a female companion.
Michael Healy-Rae, the Kerry independent, also displayed some fancy footwork. "We have lost our small pubs, our small creameries, our hardware shops," he bellowed, in what sounded like a deliberate echo of Mel Gibson's Braveheart. "What more do they want us to give up?"
In truth, however, the prominence afforded the rabble-rousing rhetoric of one of the country's most famous parish-pump potentates was unfortunate. It may have led casual observers to assume that the post office issue is just another turbocharged provincial bandwagon, a pimped-up vehicle for manufactured rural rage. Far from it.
The multi-pronged assault on the post office network – urban and rural – is actually a profoundly insidious development that should concern every citizen. The saga provides an unusually blatant illustration of the extent to which our would-be democratic leaders remain in thrall to bankers and their mercenary machinations.
Inside the Dáil on Wednesday night, the Government defeated a technical group motion calling for a strategic plan for post offices. Recent research by consultants Grant Thornton, commissioned by the IPU, warns that up to a third of outlets (around 550) could close unless such a plan is developed soon. The post office sector has put forward numerous proposals to increase business – including a widening of the availability of state facilities like motor tax renewals – but the Government response has been vague and desultory.
Pat Rabbitte, the communications minister, says he is "disappointed" by claims of an imminent threat to post offices. Unless there is compelling cause, Rabbitte told the Dáil, the Government does not want to see a single post office closed.
Some of the challenges facing post offices are complex but others are easily understood. Rabbitte's attempt to present his government as doughty defenders of post offices and their customers would be more convincing if it weren't for the debacle of the Savings Certificates. According to official estimates, Irish people have approximately €18bn in post office savings – and, not surprisingly, the banks aren't happy about this. Until recently, An Post Savings Certs offered a 21pc return over five-and-a-half years. Having laid waste to their own business, and much else besides, the banks simply couldn't compete – so bankers did what bankers always do and asked the Government to rig the game in their favour. Shamefully, the politicians capitulated. An Post was compelled to reduce its interest rate on three occasions and the return on Savings Certs now stands at 10pc.
During the boom, when the ballsy guys and smart money were barrelling ever deeper into construction, post offices were objects of scorn in many quarters, derided as glorified safety-deposit boxes in which little old ladies kept their savings. After the crash, and the revelation that little old ladies know more about investment than the wizards of high finance, the post offices looked like beacons of good practice and prudent management. Their existence, therefore, posed a problem.
It would be nice to believe that Rabbitte and his fellow ministers have the gumption to recognise all this, not least when the stealthiest attacks on post offices are being mounted by commercial competitors – but history suggests otherwise. "Too big to fail" was the delinquent philosophy that fuelled the global banking gold-rush but, in the Irish context, the doctrine appears to have a corollary. Post offices, it seems, are too successful to be allowed survive.
We can't quite stomach our Greens
Environmental politics would be all the rage if it weren't for, well, environmental politicians. Last week, the Green Party launched its Euro elections campaign with a blast of self-satisfied blather that almost qualified as noise pollution. "We have served our time and used it wisely," declared one candidate, when asked if his party was still condemned to the political 'sin bin' following its calamitous coalition with Fianna Fáil.
The confident prediction that the Greens have repaid their debt to society – before the electorate has spoken – is foolhardy. However, it encapsulates the arrogance and denial that have long coloured the Green worldview. Nobody within the organisation seems ready to acknowledge the extent to which public resistance to environmentalism has been reinforced by public distaste for pious Green posturing.
The overbearing nature of Green self-righteousness was vividly evident during last Tuesday's Prime Time debate about genetically modified food, which featured, among others, Cllr Seamus Sheridan, the party's agriculture spokesman. Sporting what looked like a waistcoat woven from grass and an attitude apparently assembled from briars, Sheridan was every inch the angry tree-hugger from Central Casting. He grew indignant when Miriam O'Callaghan (pictured) asked an entirely reasonable question about whether GM produce is safe to eat.
"The debate on GM is not just about what rich western consumers care about," Sheridan harrumphed, dismissing such concerns as "first-world problems".
Like it or not, Irish people are "rich" western consumers – and we're unlikely to be experiencing third-world problems any time soon. If the Greens want our attention and/or votes, they should, occasionally, dismount the high horse.
Silver lining for Amy
Amy Huberman's commercials for cutlery are among the weirdest spectacles on TV, a disconcerting insight into the mind-settings of a woman who appears to go misty-eyed in the presence of knives and forks. Public swooning over your family is bad enough, but public swooning over your family silver is positively perverse.
In an interview with Image magazine, Huberman complains about the ditzy connotations that come with the term WAG, a label with which she must contend because of her marriage to rugby star Brian O'Driscoll.
And, in fairness, Huberman does seem perfectly capable of ditziness in her own right. "I was never the coolest, cleverest or prettiest," she muses. "But I was always fairly comfortable with who I was. I think even my teenage self would be proud about the choices I've made. Because it takes balls to put yourself out there so publicly to be judged."
As any silver-care expert will attest, over-polishing of the wares can result in a dull, unattractive finish.