Thursday, 3 June 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Michael Lowry (Tipperary, Independent)
For the first time in 15 months there is a sense of optimism in the country. While this optimism is tinged with caution, it also brings with it a sense of anticipation and a feeling of hope. This is particularly so for SME’s across the country. These small and medium enterprises, SMEs, will form the backbone of Ireland’s recovery from the combined impact of the Covid pandemic and Brexit. In every corner of Ireland these businesses have shown a remarkable ability to challenge and overcome the obstacles they have faced. Failure to do so is not an option for them. The shared strength of every SME is their fierce determination to survive and succeed.
Before this pandemic, 250,000 SMEs were a major source of jobs and enterprises. A significant number are in retail, hospitality and in the service industry. They operate small enterprises that collectively support the economy in urban and rural areas. Their day-to-day running is dependent on the availability of business services.
Since the start of this pandemic, in addition to their inability to trade due to Covid restrictions, several of these businesses have seen the demise of banking services in their local areas. This was a major blow to many of them who were dependent on daily or weekly dealings with the banks. This blow was somewhat softened by news that post offices would offer limited banking services. Now, due to the failure of swift and urgently required action at Government level we learned on Tuesday that the post office network is on the verge of collapse as their appeal for help has gone unheard.
This is not a new story. This has been roaring down the tracks at us for many months. Postmasters have been warning of looming closures for a long time. They have repeatedly cited 1 July as the date by which Government assistance could save them. They have constantly questioned when the additional range of Government services promised in 2018 would come on stream. The fact that the provision of offline Government services is still being considered three years later has done nothing to help post offices as they stumble towards disaster. Now, with less than one month remaining, the writing is on the wall and a crisis is looming.
Of the 920 post offices across the country, 875 are operated by independent postmasters. From 1 July they face a reduction of an average of 20% in payment rates. This will render their businesses unsustainable. This will, in their own words, result in the "unrestrained closures" of post offices. It has now become a battle against the clock for survival. An emergency meeting of postmasters is likely to sanction work stoppages.
How has this situation been allowed to reach this point? Why has the post office network been pushed to the wire at a time when the recovery of our State is centre stage? When will the Government provide urgent financial assistance to post offices?