The Postal Service threat

19 November 2010 No Comments by The Northern Standard

At a time of incessant gloom and unceasing turmoil in the national economy, when all news seems to be bad news and the ability to absorb it reaches saturation point, the public can easily grow inured to calamity, and can be slow to react or assign the appropriate consideration when a new threat to the quality of their lives and to the community good stealthily emerges.

This is one obstacle facing those in the Irish postal service who are at present seeking to galvanise local political opposition to proposals in train to implement an EU directive that would see the competitive landscape of their area of business transformed.

The processes which take place to facilitate such changes, like so many of the consequences of being a Member State of the European Union, tend to proceed along complex and often covert lines which render them effectively surreptitious.  The public too often only become aware of them when their lives are adversely impacted as a consequence, and by then it is usually much too late to attempt to fasten the latch on the stable door.

To offset these disadvantages, those in the Co Monaghan service working at present to heighten awareness of the possible consequences of the liberalisation of the postal market, and ensure that the seemingly inevitable changes in competition that will come about are managed in a responsible fashion, have one important resource to call upon: a great deal of latent public goodwill.

This was very evident at Monday night’s meeting of Monaghan Town Council when a motion from Cathaoirleach Robbie Gallagher on the subject was debated.  Good public representatives are embodiments of their constituents’ characteristic concerns, and there was evident, in the importance the councillors who contributed to the debate placed on the service that postal employees deliver at community level, a regard for and appreciation of the scope and quality of this work that will be echoed by the public at large.

That is not to say that the prevailing mood is one that would have the postal service rendered immune from change.  Indeed, it is a sector of employment and of service provision that has been for some time in the throes of transformation.  This has been dictated in large measure by changes in public habits in the transmission of communications, and changes in the conduct of business generally brought about by the technological revolutions of recent decades.

As e-mail has replaced ‘snail mail’ and businesses of all types have turned increasingly to electronic methods of interchange with their customers, the challenges to the Irish postal service have been profound and remain ongoing.

An Post have made considerable endeavours to preserve its place at the heart of the Irish communications network, turning the new technology to its own ends and broadening the range of services it places at the disposal of its clientele.  While it has not been able to stem the tide of change, or ride its waves without a certain degree of consequence in terms of employment and service adjustment, it has done commendably well to preserve its identity and embrace inevitable efficiencies while still turning a significant, if declining, operating profit.

What has arguably sustained the Irish postal service during this upheaval is that latent public goodwill we referred to earlier.  And that goodwill in turn derives from the recognition of the service as one which, at local community level, transcends the purely commercial and takes on significant social meaning.

Colr Gallagher’s motion expressed it thus: “Postmen and women provide an important public service and also function as an integral part of the social fabric of their community, particularly for the elderly and the isolated citizens whose only human contact might be their post person.”  The image of the easygoing postie strolling through town and village streets with a friendly word for all he meets and on first-name terms with the occupants of all his stops will for many of us belong to the never-never land of nostalgia.  But for many people in the contemporary world, particularly those whose ambit of existence is confined by age or infirmity to the precincts of their own home, the postman or woman remains a significant and comforting human presence in their lives, and can very often be a sentinel against loneliness or sudden debility.

It is this social dimension to the work of the postal service that the members of Monaghan Town Council perceived as being most at threat from the opening up of the market to competition.  The fear is that large operators from outside the country who wish to avail themselves of the Irish market will confine their interests to those parts of the country where the population is most concentrated and consequently the pickings are the most lucrative.  By transforming the postal market in this way, the Government will be effectively amputating from it its social dimension and turning it into a ruthlessly commercial environment ruled by the forces of the marketplace, and in which neither our lazily perambulating postie of yore or his modern equivalent would find themselves with either time or opportunity for the friendly word or the reassuring chat.

The proponents of liberalisation will undoubtedly scoff at such objections as being alarmist, or of the ‘stick-in-the-mud’ variety.  They have, of course, the argument that change of this nature is inevitable and that modern economic exigencies dictate that the delivery of all public services must accord more and more with the efficiencies ascendant in the commercial world.  That may well be so, but what usually happens in cases where market forces are liberated in spheres of life where social considerations should also have precedence is that the social suffers, and the government of the day who took off the leash in the first place are not interested in dealing with the adverse consequences.  It is left to communities at local level to supply the deficit, and take on further burdens that should more properly be discharged by a caring and responsible State.

This scenario has been played out in transport services for many years, and more lately the drama is being enacted in various theatres of health care.  There will inevitably be a repeat performance unless the liberalisation of the postal market is managed in a prudent and incremental manner.  The jobs of many of those in the current postal service will be placed on the line, but there will also be far-reaching social consequences for a great many communities in Ireland, particularly those in our rural and small town locales.

Sinn Féin councillor Sean Conlon described such proposals on Monday as being of a nature that “totally subverts our culture to the negative”.  It is a very accurate summation of the harm that could ensue from the proposed postal reform – a considerable devaluation of our social and community culture could be created, and it will be the challenging task of our local communities themselves to try to identify some way to rectify it.

Before that situation comes about, the public have the opportunity to inform themselves of what the pending EU directive is all about, and what those employed in the Irish postal service have to say about the proposals. We imagine that our readers who do so will find much to concern them, and we would encourage them to communicate those concerns to their local and national politicians.  Some forceful and concerted lobbying from the grassroots to the national legislators might prevent the last post from sounding on the important social dimension of a vital public service.

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