Garda role suggested to make post offices more sustainable
POST offices could be transformed into mini garda bureaux under new proposals to save the country's struggling network.
Workers in Ireland's 1,150 post offices could carry out basic garda administration in a bid to raise more revenue and prevent future closures.
This was one consideration in a report from a cross-party Oireachtas committee, which made a string of recommendations to make post offices more sustainable.
Sinn Fein's Michael Colreavy insisted the measures would require no additional costs - just a new mind-set.
"Most of the proposals in this report require not additional funding, but a different way of thinking - a different range of services to be made available at the local post office," said Mr Colreavy, who sits on the committee.
"It requires different Government departments to think about the viability to deliver these services."
The report suggested following a model due to be piloted in the UK, in which its post office network is in talks with 10 police forces about providing limited services.
The Mayor of London's office is looking at a pilot scheme this summer to see police points of contacts in post offices and other public buildings to act as a lost property desk or take petty crime reports.
The committee report urged the Government to consider that idea but also to use post offices for processing motor tax renewals, hospital charges, water charges, property tax, business rates, rents and other public payment services.
Around 400 post offices are threatened with immediate closure if An Post fails to secure a contract to process social welfare payments - the contract is currently out to tender.
The report therefore recommends that a successful bidder for any contracts currently held by An Post honour the "social responsibility" held by the local post office, which serves as a "social dividend" and is "important for social inclusion".
However, the committee noted that the British proposal would need to be monitored given the significant socio-economic and administrative differences between Ireland and the UK.
The Irish Postmasters' Union welcomed the recommendations but said it was concerned the report would just gather dust and not result in direct government action.
"The vulnerability of the network is once again highlighted in the report and this further emphasises the urgent need for the Government to look positively at routing more business through the outstanding network of post offices," general secretary Brian McGann added.
Other recommendations in the report, Promoting a Sustainable Future for the Post Office Network, include the introduction of an amber light warning system that gives communities advance notice that their local branch might be vulnerable to closure.
Some limited banking facilities are already in place in many post offices, including making deposits, cashing and lodging cheques.
Another recommendation urges the Government to use the network as part of its financial inclusion strategy to deliver basic payment accounts to those without bank accounts.
Elsewhere, committee chairman and Fine Gael TD Tom Hayes said post offices were vital particularly in rural areas where elderly people are in danger of becoming isolated.
"The post office network, with its unrivalled reach across the nation, has many competitive advantages which could lead to an expansion in the products and services it provides.
"We believe that the post office is about much more than the services it provides. For many people the post office is the first port of call when an individual seeks to engage with one of the various organs of the state."
Meanwhile, the Aer Lingus chief executive has been appointed chairman of An Post.
Christoph Mueller, who had management roles in Deutsche Post and DHL before joining the airline, was asked to take on the role by Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte.
"An Post has a great brand and an important nation-wide network. It provides very important services to communities throughout Ireland. However, in the internet era, the company also faces significant challenges," Mr Rabbitte said.
"The company will benefit from the strategic leadership approach that Christoph Mueller has brought to Aer Lingus."