Sunday 4 December 2016

Rural post offices under a new threat

Social welfare payment changes are the last straw for country postmasters

Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30

Those running post offices in villages and towns across the country are afraid they will be forced to close their doors because of social welfare payment changes. Stock image
Those running post offices in villages and towns across the country are afraid they will be forced to close their doors because of social welfare payment changes. Stock image

Rural post offices all over the country are again under threat because of changes to the way social welfare payments are administered.

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Those running post offices in villages and towns across the country are afraid they will be forced to close their doors because of the rule changes.

"I feel that I will have to make a terrible decision," says Nora O'Connor, a postmaster in Ballyduff, Co Kerry.

"This post office is actually in the family since the foundation of the State and before it.

"I had a great grandmother who got a licence to sell stamps after she was widowed when her husband died fighting for the English. We have a safe with the crown on it so it goes right back to that.

"Now they are syphoning off the social welfare (payments) and they are putting them into the banks and credit unions and that is what will actually close us."

Cashing social welfare payments account for 30pc of postmasters' business, according to the Irish Postmasters' Union.

Welfare recipients and An Post customers have been issued with letters from the Department of Social Protection asking them for bank details so payments can be lodged directly to their accounts. Nora sorted the same letters before they were delivered with the rest of the mail.

"The letters came from here," Nora says, sitting in her kitchen adjacent to the post office.

"The postman delivered them. It is very disheartening because we try to provide a service for our own community and I think the community will be all the poorer for not having us."

The Government says this is consistent with a national payments plan and in line with payment methods that prevail across the economy.

However, those in post offices everyday are unhappy with the plan.

Visitors to the Ballyduff post office - sending packages to relatives in Australia, paying bills or going about their business - knock on the kitchen door to say hello to Nora when passing.

All are offered a cup of tea and a few biscuits. They are now all worried about the talk of closure.

Local parish priest Fr Brendan Walsh said closing the post office would "decimate" the community.

"This is a very important meeting point and a very important business point.

"From a contact point of view, it is always a place where I meet parishioners and chat with them."

Ballyduff is somewhat cut off from the rest of the county, geographically and socially.

Hurling dominates here over the Kingdom's brand of football. The roads to nearby towns are treacherous and among the worst in the county.

There are no banks in the village, just a couple of small shops, a pharmacy, a hardware shop and a few pubs. Emigration left the village with an aged population.

The Atlantic coast is nearby but you can't see it. This could be a village anywhere in the country.

An Post's annual report shows only six post offices were closed in Ireland last year. Total revenues increased by more than €10m. Retail revenues totalled €164.3m in 2015, marginally down from €166.1m. An Post has attributed this to a fall in the volume of social welfare benefit payments distributed on behalf of the Department of Social Protection.

Declining numbers attending churches, rural garda station closures and modern drink-driving laws have led to post offices becoming a social hub for people going about their business in rural Ireland. Closing them may be the final nail in the coffin for those beyond the Red Cow.

Teddy O'Sullivan is a retired guard who has lived in Ballyduff for 50 years.

"There is only one guard here now but when I came here there was a sergeant and three (gardai)," he said.

"The post office is the one remaining item keeping the village alive.

"My pension is paid into my bank account and the only way I have of retrieving it is through the post office here. All my bills are paid here.

"If someone told me this place was to be closed down I'd be very worried and very annoyed."

Sunday Independent

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