Seanad debates

Monday, 26 April 2021

10:30 am

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent) | Oireachtas source

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit.I support this motion, but it is unambitious and it needs the amendment proposed by Senators Boyhan, Craughwell, Norris, McDowell and I, and the Sinn Féin amendments as well. It seems there is little point in us debating the generalities of the problems facing post offices in our rural communities unless we are going to promote concrete action to assist them. If we do not, then motions such as this have all the hallmarks of being those regular inoffensive motions which the Government does not oppose, but does nothing to action either and there is no change of policy.

In 2018, we had the announcement of a raft of post office closures, which was debated at length. At that time, my fellow east Galway native and the current Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Anne Rabbitte, described the closures in Galway as shocking and the death knell for rural Ireland. She said also that the Government was creating wastelands. I agree with those comments. It is a shame, therefore, that this sense of outrage is not reflected in the approach now being taken by the Government, of which the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is a member.

The recent announcement of the withdrawal of KBC Bank Ireland and Ulster Bank from the Republic and the closure of more than 100 branches by Bank of Ireland should surely change our attitude to the post office network. Two hundred and twenty bank branches are set to close on foot of these announcements, which is roughly one third of all bank branches across the country. More rural and less populated areas will, of course, as usual, suffer disproportionate closures. It is interesting that as our political system and the number of political parties has increased and fragmented, our banking sector has consolidated and regressed. We have gone from being a country with two and a half political parties to a country with two and a half banks, none of which entities is viewed as bywords for public trust, probity and honesty. They are synonymous with incompetence, reckless lending, the gouging of consumers at every opportunity and, in some case, defrauding customers, as we saw in regard to the tracker mortgages.

The number of credit unions has also halved in the past decade, down from 405 to 246, due to the Central Bank of Ireland pressurising many into mergers which in retrospect were not necessary, as evidenced by the large surplus in capital not used by the Credit Union Restructuring Board, which I raised in this House last November. All of this means that there has been a massive reduction in the number of options available to consumers in terms of savings, loans, mortgages and so on. Credit unions will, hopefully, have a greater role in the future. Is there room for a new State bank, which has been mooted many times? As a general rule, I do not think we should encourage State intervention in private enterprise except when private enterprise is failing the needs of ordinary citizens, as we found in 2008. Maybe we are approaching that point again, but from a different perspective and caused by different factors.

There are approximately 950 post offices remaining. It is clear that these will have to form part of the solution as well. As the motion notes, post offices are the service provider of last resort. A large section of our population still do not have the means or know-how to access banking through online means and they will need physical branch networks for the remainder of their lives. Post offices are now the last resort for many to process bill, pension and social welfare payments and so on. Our amendment proposes the extension of this service, turning post offices into one-stop shops or hubs for the services of Departments. There is much untapped potential for the post office network which can strengthen their viability.

I am a little surprised that the motion before us today makes no reference to the Grant Thornton report from late last year which found that nearly one third of the population attended a post office once a week, with 91% of people believing that they provide an important service to the community. Grant Thornton said that the only real way to preserve the network was through State investment of €17 million per annum through the public service obligation. Surely, that is justifiable. I have heard Senators from the Government side mention it, but why is it not in the motion? Why is the motion so meek? It reminds me of the saying, "the meek shall inherit the earth." If Government Senators believe it, they should say so and call on Government for it.

We are currently spending €12 million per day on the pandemic unemployment payment. Is the Government seriously saying that post-Covid we would not be able to find €17 million per year for our post offices? This issue is symptomatic of a much wider problem that we have seen over successive Governments, namely, a contempt for people in rural Ireland and for working people, urban or rural. There is a Government in Dublin with a Dublin-based policy making elite that thinks it knows better than ordinary people and it is not shy about telling us so. We see this regularly, including yesterday with the revelation that the minimum unit pricing in regard to the sale of alcohol is to be implemented, which will do nothing to reduce drinking, but will penalise the poorest, particularly poorer people who abuse alcohol and who will end up spending more of their limited money on the habit.We also saw contempt for people yesterday in Athlone when members of the Garda Síochána, and there is no blame on them because they are forced into this position, broke up a small group of people attending mass. That is a clear and blatant violation of the European Convention on Human Rights and, importantly, our Constitution. All this is presided over by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party, as Members of the Dáil and Seanad sit with their arms folded. If it had happened in Hungary, several Senators opposite would be jumping up and down about it. Against that background, it is a little difficult to accept the platitudes and, in particular, the weakness of the motion before the House because what rural communities need is concrete action, not well-meaning verbiage.

People describe being reactionary as wanting to go back to the status quo ante. Any of us familiar with the state of our larger and smaller towns knows about the physical decline and the problems in terms of drugs but, in particular, the pathetic look of so many of those towns. We need to invest in the appearance of our towns for the sake of public morale and our tourism product. I would rather drive through a Potemkin village that had been painted up than drive through a place that looks like a bomb site. In the context of post offices, maintaining one of the few remaining institutions that can be the lifeblood of some of those smaller towns to which I refer must become an important public priority.


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