More needs to be done to help postmasters.
Despite calls by local communities and politicians to retain post office services in rural Ireland, the reality is people simply aren't using the service and falling incomes mean that many postmasters are facing little option but to close their doors.
One of Co Leitrim's longest serving Postmasters, Aodh Flynn in Manorhamilton, told the Leitrim Observer he believes the number of post offices in Leitrim could fall to just "two or three" unless more is done to support postmasters and to generate alternative business for post offices. He also claims national post office numbers could fall to 300-400 in the coming years because many post offices are simply no longer viable.
Working as a postmaster for 53 years, Mr Flynn said he had witnessed many changes but argued the challenges facing postmasters today will lead to many more closures.
He said many are already struggling to survive because people simply aren't doing business through their local post offices, resulting in falling incomes for postmasters and added he is aware of colleagues who will "jump at the chance" to close if they are offered a lump sum by An Post.
"Postmasters are (self) employed through contracts with An Post. We have seen business, such as postage, fall as a result of the rise of electronic forms of communication and that will continue as more and more people get access to high speed broadband," he notes.
"But there has also been a fall in the number of social welfare payments through post offices and this has come at a time when there have been increases in the cost of rates, electricity and other charges for postmasters."
An Post has proposed a new Postmasters' Contract which will see each post office operate on a stand-alone commercial basis and puts no value on the social function of post offices.
While the current Postmaster's Contract allows for holiday pay and a small gratuity benefit on retirement, Mr Flynn said An Post are seeking to eliminate such payments going forward. An Post is also seeking to introduce targets for post offices and increase opening hours.
“(An Post's new Postmaster Contract) is very one-sided with all the benefits to An Post and all the costs bourne by the postmasters,” said Mr Flynn.
Last Sunday the Irish Postmasters' Union (IPU) voted to reject the new Contract proposal but Mr Flynn says it is clear that many postmasters are facing a situation where their businesses are no longer viable.
At present there is a base income level of €12,000 per annum (before costs) for postmasters in place but there is no guarantee this will continue going forward. Even if this figure is maintained, rising costs are squeezing small and medium post offices to the point where postmasters can't afford to remain open.
"Nobody is arguing about the need to keep services in rural areas but if businesses are losing money then how can we expect postmasters to keep going?
"If An Post push ahead with contract changes then you will definitely see a lot of post offices closing their doors, but regardless, we'll be losing post offices because postmasters can't make a living from them."
Manorhamilton's Postmaster said An Post's push to co-locate post offices in existing supermarkets is also extremely detrimental.
"This would centralise services in a single location to the detriment of other businesses," he said. "This goes against the Government's policy to support shops on the main streets of small towns and villages and will leave one business with a total monopoly."
Despite assurances from various political parties and successive governments saying they recognise the important role of post offices and will direct more business through offices, Mr Flynn said "that simply isn't happening” . More needs to be done to support postmasters and generate business in post offices, at the moment there is no rational thinking behind proposed changes, he argued.
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