Ardee Post Office Postmaster Michael Farrelly has expressed his fears over the future of small regional post offices – including his own – claiming “nothing can save it” as services continue to move online, leading to huge decline in over-the-counter transactions.
In the family for 89 years, it’s a relatively short wait to celebrate an extraordinary century of management of the Post Office in the town – through Michael, father Sean and grandfather James. However as the years go by, the obstacles lying in the way of sustainability become even greater.
Speaking to ThisIsArdee.ie, Farrelly, who is the third generation of his family at the helm of Ardee Post Office, said the number of people coming in and doing the business in person is dwindling. That has a knock-on effect on he and his staff.
“A customer came in on Monday and remarked he couldn’t believe how few people there were in. Before, you’d have so many people coming you couldn’t get in the door on a dole day. Then, you’d have social welfare too.”
“The government say there aren’t as many people on the dole. But all they are doing is moving them along, putting them on schemes and giving them no option other than to get money put into the bank. Social welfare doesn’t tell them they are entitled to get it paid wherever they like. It’s costing people money to get it out of the bank, where in the post office it’s straight into your hands – cash in hand,” he said.
Farrelly believes the shift to digital payments and direct debit doesn’t benefit Post Offices or customers either. Between 500 and 700 post offices nationwide are in immediate danger of closure and the Ardee Postmaster believes his branch is among those at risk.
He says An Post plans are to shut as many offices as possible, in a bid to improve the economical prospects of the company amidst a shift in focus to parcel delivery.
“It’s dying,” he tells us. “Unfortunately, people don’t realise this is the case until it’s gone. They don’t realise we’re paid on a commission base and social welfare is 90% of our business. We’re paying three staff and I’m getting nothing, I’m paying it out of my own pocket to keep the place.
“Nothing can save it. Social welfare is the main thing. They’re on about the new smart card, but that means you can pick up payments at any post office. You swipe the card and the computer will put the money on your card.
“People can pick it up anywhere – but I only get paid in they come into me. That’s pensions, dole, everything. Unfortunately, the new pensioners coming up now are bankers. They’re into banks and computers and when they get to the pension age, they get it paid into the bank.
Farrelly also believes the shift away from traditional social welfare payments means the social aspect of day-to-day life is for many customers is affected greatly. Despite grave concerns about the Post Offices’ future, he does well to see the humour in the situation however.
“It’s taking away the independence of the older person as well. They like coming out and having a chat,” he continues. “It’s a social aspect. It’s that’s poor in the post office at the minute, I was joking we should put in a pool table for some revenue!
Plans are a foot to use An Post’s new Smart Current Account as a way to secure the future of Post Offices and help the Post Office Network take a share of the banking market in Ireland, moving towards implementing a community bank model.
The idea has already gone before the Dail, with calls for the practice – based on successful models in New Zealand and Germany – to be made available in post offices across the country. However, Farrelly is not convinced by it’s merits.
“An Post want to introduce it, but they don’t want to pay us,” he says. “It would cripple us. They’re coming along with this idea and our Union are talking with them – but they don’t want to pay us. There’s 1000 offices and they want rid of 700 of them. It’s not worth their while.
When asked why An Post seem so keen to close officers nationwide, Farrelly confirms, “They’re saying it’s not economic. Say, when I sell a stamp, I’m subsidising the smaller post office. We don’t want to lose any offices, but we want to be paid properly.”
Previously, the Ardee-based Postmaster has been a keen advocate for postmaster salaries, as opposed to merely earning commission. Is that a scenario he can envisage coming into play?
“No, no. They want rid of us all,” he says. “They’re after ruining the post by putting the stamp up to a €1. And they want to concentrate on parcel delivery. They have contracts with the likes of Amazon. People aren’t buying stamps with us but these big companies are sending parcels and we still have to house them at the end of the day. It’s not worth it.”
It is believed that over half of Ireland’s total of 1,150 post offices are loss making. It’s thought that €10 million of €15 million losses posted for 2016 are due to operating offices around the country. Reports claim the Government need to supply €58 million per annum to reinvigorate An Post, or even just keep it alive.
Michael Farrelly will celebrate 30 years as Ardee Postmaster in 2018. The role of Postmaster is a tradition for the family. He took over the reigns in 1988 from his father, Sean Farrelly, who himself succeeded his father, James. Michael isn’t even sure he’ll make the three decade landmark.
“We’re here – and have been here for nearly 100 years – in Ardee. I looked at it, if I stay until 2028, it’ll be 100 years in the Farrelly name. But I can’t see myself going another two years,” he says, admitting he has thought about walking away from the business.
“I don’t want to be letting people down,” he adds. “There’ll still be a post office in Ardee but it mightn’t be as big as what it is. At one stage, we were as big as Kells – but now we’re not as big as anything. We’re struggling. You still like to hold onto it as long as you can – but to be appreciated by An Post and the people.
“People come in and say “Ah, they wouldn’t close you down” but they don’t realise you don’t have the funds in the bank. You can’t keep paying out what you haven’t got.
“Everthing is at risk. If An Post came along and said Ardee is closing and Collon is closing but they’re keeping Dunleer, then people in Ardee would start saying, “Hold on, we want our post office.” They’ll start talking and fighting too late.”
He urges people to support their local post office. It offers the personal touch you can’t get elsewhere. “Everything counts,” he says.