Ireland’s rural charm has long fascinated tourists and the dramatists of Tinseltown alike. However, for those in the postal industry, understanding the country’s rural nuances is a necessity and delivery success – whether of parcels, freight or bills – is dependent on local knowledge.
For the time being, in fact, the Republic of Ireland retains the stigma of being the only one of 34 member countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) without its own postcode [ZIP code].
This summer, though, all that will change when Eircode, a new, national system, begins operation. Its introduction marks the end of a decade of see-sawing that has seen the scheme delayed on at least five separate occasions.
After a protracted tendering process, the international business services firm Capita was awarded in October 2013 a 10-year, €25m (US$28m) contract to design, implement and maintain the code, by Pat Rabbitte, then Minister at Ireland’s Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (DCENR).
His successor, Alex White – the politician charged with overseeing Eircode’s launch – acknowledges the years taken to deliver a postcode but asserts that it has been time well spent.
“We want Irish citizens and businesses to enjoy the many advantages of postcodes as quickly as possible, but it is important that the system is effective. It’s more important to do it properly than to do it quickly. It was important to take the time to design the right system for Ireland.”
Capita’s business development director in Ireland Liam Duggan, who led the successful project to deal with the country’s distinct problems, agrees. “This country has a higher percentage of non-unique addresses than anywhere else in the world. In rural townlands, 20 to 30 properties all share the same address. In towns and cities, streets can run between two suburbs, while the way in which individual houses are numbered is not always uniform.
“Historically, those problems have only been tackled by postmen, parcel couriers and utility firms who have local knowledge – something, for example, beyond the grasp of many international e-commerce companies now shipping goods to Ireland.
“If you add the issues of spelling created by the use of place names derived from Gaelic for those who don’t speak the Irish language, you’ll understand why a different, more advanced and more specific system was required.”
Although of obvious interest to the country’s vibrant delivery industry, Eircode was built with a broader audience in mind – utility companies and the health and tax authorities.
As part of the program, every single business and residence will be assigned an alphanumeric code made up of a three-digit ‘routing key’ followed by four unique ‘identifiers’. After the removal of certain letters and numbers that look alike, there were nearly 400,000 possible permutations in each ‘routing key’ area, before further filtering extracted 100,000 combinations likely to cause amusement or offence.
Nevertheless, Duggan is confident that there are more than enough codes remaining not only to overcome headaches of the past but to accommodate any future growth in Ireland’s infrastructure.
His optimism is shared by John Tuohy, chief executive of the Republic of Ireland’s biggest independent delivery firm, Nightline. Founded in 1992, the company boasts a nationwide presence, with a dozen depots spanning Ireland processing more than 14 million parcels each year.
“Our industry has been crying out for a postcode system for many years. As the continued growth in online shopping drives the volume of goods being taken to people’s doors, we have to be able to make deliveries at the first time of asking but the current address system can be very confusing.
“Eircode is ideal for Irish conditions. It promises to be extremely beneficial for us in helping organize our routes to homes and businesses in a more efficient way.”
Yet even as Capita prepares to send details of the codes to each of Ireland’s 2.2 million homes, a further twist in the lengthy process has presented itself in the shape of an attempt to persuade European Commission (EC) officials to mount a full, time-consuming review of the scheme.
Neil McDonnell is general manager of the Freight Transport Association of Ireland (FTAI), an organization made up of some 200 freight and logistics firms.
Eighteen months ago, as Eircode was chosen by ministers, he declared that the scheme would result in “significant savings in time and money, to the benefit of businesses and customers alike”.
A year later and backed by several multi-national delivery firms, including DHL and FedEx, he performed a startling about-face, lobbying a key government committee to stop the project in its tracks. Their principal grievance was that Eircode might limit competition in the growing parcel delivery market and favor Ireland’s national postal provider, An Post.
It was only after a tense, third meeting of Irish members of parliament where they heard White argue the likely consequences of scrapping Eircode that it was allowed to go ahead.
Even so, in April 2015 McDonnell led a delegation to Brussels in an eleventh-hour effort to stall Eircode once more. In a meeting with the EC’s Competition directorate, he tried to impress on them the need to intervene for a second time.
The EC had already wrought changes from the Irish government in Dublin to its tendering processes last October over complaints from smaller firms that they had been excluded from bidding for the postcode contract because they weren’t big enough.
“Listen,” McDonnell explains, “Eircode is a superb postal address database but a very bad postcode. It doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do.
“It will keep those sending junk mail happy and will satisfy the big gorillas of state – the banks and utilities – but will give delivery businesses precisely nothing.
“I changed my position about Eircode once I saw how it was structured and how angry our members were. If you send something by mail, you don’t care about how it gets there as long as it does. When you’re moving something yourself by two or four wheels, you do [care].”
White, his ministry colleagues, and contractors at Capita are unruffled by the latest challenge. Eircode, he says, remains on course to commence operations this summer.
Others in the delivery sector, such as Nightline’s Tuohy, are not so calm about the prospect of progress being placed once more in jeopardy. Whilst even he appreciates that Eircode may still have room for improvement, he believes that the new postcode system is better than none at all.
“I would be very disappointed if Brussels stepped in at this stage to call a halt because so much time, money and effort has been invested in this project by government and industry,” Tuohy says.
“Eircode might not be absolutely perfect in that it doesn’t suit everyone’s interests but it suits what most people want and need. It’s also structured so that it can be tweaked over time.
“As far as many business people are concerned, it’s good enough, and that is good enough for me.”
Brendan Pittaway has worked extensively as an investigative journalist across print and broadcast media, both in the UK and overseas, for the past 25 years. He is a regular contributor to Postal Technology International magazine.
May 13, 2015