Postmasters poised to enter the political fray in General Election
Post Office candidates are set to contest a number of seats in the General Election following an unprecedented decision by their union.
The go-ahead for the plan followed a near unanimous decision at the Irish Postmasters' Union (IPU) conference in Kilkenny.
The post office network has come under unprecedented pressure in recent years - provoking condemnation that the social fabric of rural areas is being adversely affected.
The service currently employs around 3,500 people spread in 1,000 offices around the country. But it is now estimated that up to 557 post offices could close by 2017, following an independent report by Grant Thornton last year.
There are growing concerns that closures are inevitable when social protection payments are converted to an electronic payment system by 2018.
The IPU has now decided to take its campaign into the political arena, following its decision to put up general election candidates, unless they get some assurances on a number of core issues.
Members of the IPU voted to give their full support to a comprehensive political campaign to protect the network and support local communities.
General secretary Ned O'Hara said a number of postmasters and community activists had already contacted the union suggesting it put forward candidates who will stand in the general election.
"They will run in their own right as independent candidates and will now have the strength of postmasters behind them. These candidates will be supported by 1,100 post offices across the country who will be urging customers and communities to vote for the post office candidate over the Government parties."
Postmistress Seona O'Fegan, who has a post office in Barna, Co Galway, is considering standing in the Galway West constituency.
Other declarations of intent could follow in the coming days.
"If the Government takes the necessary steps to protect the post office network, it may not be necessary for the candidates to run. However, if there is not urgent progress, candidates and the constituencies they are running in will be announced after the summer," Mr O'Hara said.
IPU president Ciaran McEntee called on the public to switch from receiving social protection payments by Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT), to collecting their payments at the post office.
Currently, approximately half of social protection payments are paid by EFT and half at the post office, with the Government aiming towards 97pc electronic payment by the end of 2018.
The union has a six-point plan designed to protect the existing post office network. Additional services which postmasters want to provide include a banking service, motor tax renewals, driver licence renewals and insurance quotations.
After 39 years in the post office business, Aine O'Shea is concerned.
She revamped her office in Cork city 10 years ago but a drop in business in the past three months has heightened her anxiety. "Business has been dropping by the day," she admits.
Ms O'Shea said postmasters are angry over the recent controversy surrounding social welfare letters which were sent out to thousands of customers, urging them to use bank services. "Pensioners and other people became nervous about these things. People are changing to banks because they feel they have to, after receiving these letters."
She says the Government fails to appreciate postmasters. "I don't think they get how challenging things are. I don't think they realise what an asset the post office is to the community."