Post Office scandal: Long search for justice
Deirdre Connolly has been waiting for justice for 12 years now – and is desperately hoping the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry will finally hold somebody to account for ruining her life.
A former sub-postmistress at Killeter Post Office in Co Tyrone, she was one of hundreds who were wrongly accused of stealing money from their businesses, when in fact a glitch in the Horizon computer system was to blame.
While Deirdre has now had her name cleared in a High Court action, she has only been compensated with a fraction of what she was owed and no-one has been held accountable for the IT scandal that has devastated lives across the UK.
Despite borrowing just under £16,000 from her family to pay the money she had been accused of stealing from the Post Office, that sum has never been repaid to her since she had her name cleared.
Deirdre says she has learned in recent weeks that 19 postmasters and postmistresses across Northern Ireland were convicted as a result of the IT glitches and more have come forward who were affected but not convicted.
“One of the men contacted me last week and he was so glad to get chatting to somebody who could relate to what he went through. For years he wasn’t talking to anybody who could relate to what he was saying,” she told Neighbourhood Retailer in an exclusive interview.
“I haven‘t got a date for the Inquiry yet, but it’s so great that it’s coming over to Northern Ireland. I’ve been asking for [Inquiry chairman] Sir Wyn Williams to come over here.”
Local post office
Born in Belfast, Deirdre moved to Co Tyrone in 1972 and Killeter Post Office was her local when she was growing up.
“I remember going with my mum and my granny to get their pensions on a Thursday, and I remember the man who owned it at that stage – they were good memories,” she says.
Deirdre worked for a time in O’Kane Foods, where she met her husband Darius. The couple married in 1991 and had two children, Gemma and Sean.
“I took time off after I had the children and then I went back to do the accounts in a cooking oil company. That was when the opportunity at the Post Office arose,” she says.
“I heard the lease was going in the shop, so I mentioned it to Darius and we took it over. We said this would be our retirement fund and the business would give us our freedom.”
Deirdre took over as sub postmistress on February 1 2006, and loved working at Killeter Post Office.
“It was great meeting all the people I’d grown up with – it was a bit of craic and a bit of banter,” she says.
But even at that stage, there were worrying signs.
For one thing, when she started work, she was told by the Post Office that nobody would be available to train her for six weeks.
“The only way I learned was for the previous sub postmaster to show me,” Deirdre says.
And she kept finding that when balancing at the end of each day, the tally could be out £3, £10 or even £50 at time – “We put it down to a miscalculation. The Lotto was involved in it and it was separate from all the other things, so I thought it had put the money in the wrong box.
“It wasn’t out every day but it was happening two or three times a week. I always put the money back myself because I was the sub postmistress and the buck stopped with me.”
In 2009, Deirdre took on two outreach sites at Ardstraw and Aughabrack – this meant that several times a week, she would bring a computer and a case of cash to these villages to operate a small post office for several hours in a day. She found the same thing happening.
“It was all mostly the same. I was still putting the money in myself, but when they came and did the audit and told me how much it was short…. My God.”
Four years after she started at Killeter, the Post Office carried out its first audit – and that was the the fateful day their lives descended into a Kafkaesque nightmare.
“It was on June 2 2010 – the auditor landed at 8.30am when I was just opening the shop. I opened the shop and set the safe to open, knowing it was on a time delay,” Deirdre explains.
“He put a sign up saying Audit in Progress and did what he had to do. Then at 9.15am he came in and said I was £16,592 short. I looked at him and there were a few choice words. I said ‘You’re wrong’. I said ‘Can I go and check it?’ But I wasn’t allowed back in again.
“He said ‘I am going to have to suspend you’; and that was the last time I was back in.”
Deirdre called Darius to collect her in the car and they went out for a drive.
“We went out round the country roads, just driving, and then we pulled in and looked at each other. I didn’t know what to think – it was an awful feeling.”
Unable to face returning to the Post Office, Deirdre returned home, while Darius went back to the shop. At 3.30pm, the auditor locked the safe, took the keys to the shop and left, saying he would return the following week to do another audit.
“When he came back the following week, Darius was in the shop. The auditor came up with some money in his hand and said to Darius ‘There’s £1,000 in the safe that I didn’t see last week’. Wouldn’t that instil confidence in you?”
That money reduced the shortfall to £15,592, and the couple agreed that the Post Office could install a temporary sub postmaster, because they needed the footfall in the shop. They later received a letter telling them to go to the Royal Mail head office in Belfast for an interview.
Deirdre says she remembers little of this interview because by now she was on strong medication.
Post office interview
She and Darius then attended a further interview in Omagh with their family solicitor.
“They frogmarched my husband out at the start of the interview and the solicitor was told he wasn’t allowed to speak at all. They had flown in an ex-policeman from England that morning to interview me and it was all taped,” Deirdre says, still clearly shocked.
“At that stage I was medicated to the hilt – I couldn’t cope mentally.
“They asked me in the interview, did you take the money for the paramilitaries? They didn’t think much of my safety if they were going to broadcast that.”
The solicitor advised them to find a way of getting the money paid, so they were forced to borrow from both their families. They have still been unable to pay off that debt.
“In February 2013, we were declared bankrupt because of the loss of the Post Office salary. Our debts had mounted and we weren’t able to cope with the bills,” Deirdre continues.
“In May 2013, I took my first epilepsy fit. I am on tablets for that now for life.”
But that same year, her sister-in-law drew her attention to a newspaper article about the campaign in England by the Justice for Sub Postmaster Alliance (JFSA) which was determined to expose the cover-up of the Horizon failings and seek redress for the Post Office staff who had been wrongfully accused of fraud and theft.
When Deirdre told her story to Alan Bates of the JFSA, he told her: “We’ll look after you from here on in.”
That was the start of a process in which Deirdre joined scores of other victims in litigation. While 150 initially took part in a mediation process, this ultimately failed, and 555 embarked on litigation.
Eventually, the trial concluded in 2019 and their names were cleared.
“It was a really surreal feeling being there and being told you were vindicated,” says Deirdre.
“I knew I didn’t do it and my family knew, but to get it out in public and say ‘She did nothing wrong…’.”
Following that litigation, however, a total of £57 million was awarded in compensation, of which £46 million went on legal fees, and the remaining £11 million was split between 555 people, which left little to compensate for all those years in which lives were left in ruins.
Three in five of the postmasters who applied to the Historical Shortfall Scheme which was put in place later on, are still waiting for compensation, but those who took part in the litigation weren’t allowed to apply to that scheme at all.
“We highlighted that the system wasn’t fit for purpose and we have been punished for highlighting that – the likes of me will have a pittance in comparison,” Deirdre says.
She now works doing accounts for a dog food company.
“I can’t afford not to work, because of the position the Post Office put me in. My grandson was born four weeks ago – I should be able to take time off and be with him. I should be in a position to do that.”
Deirdre says her shock and anxiety have given way to anger.
“I’m angry with all the people that were high up in the Post Office, the government ministers, the civil servants, Fujitsu. It came out in the trial that the system wasn’t fit for purpose. They knew and they put us all through that.”
After she borrowed the money to pay back the Post Office all those years ago, she enclosed a letter asking them to tell her where she had made any mistakes, but they never replied and they never returned the money after she was cleared.
“What I want is for somebody to be held accountable for what they’ve done to all of us. I’ve had my name cleared and they all know what happened. I’m hoping that Sir Wyn will get to the bottom of it,” she says.
Deidre says she’s been contacted by former Post Office staff from Northern Ireland who weren’t convicted but were affected by the Horizon glitches, and several have now agreed to give their impact statements when the inquiry sits here.
“There are people from all over Northern Ireland – from Belfast, from Co Down, from Dundonald. Hopefully everybody will get some kind of satisfaction after this inquiry. I just hope it doesn’t let me down.”
After Deirdre lost her job, she no longer felt comfortable about going back to Killeter.
“There was always a saying in a rural areas, there’s no smoke without fire – you know yourself. But I’m so happy that I got my name cleared with my mother and Darius’s mother still alive. They went through it with us,” she says.
And things can never be made the same again. When asked whether she misses Killeter, she pauses, and says: “If things had been different, it would have been great still to be there, but now I couldn’t go back to it.
“I’d still be paranoid. I’d still be thinking people would be talking about you. I still have family up there. It’s sad to say I do, but I don’t know how I would feel.
“The Post Office has ruined our lives.”
To read more in Neighbourhood Retailer, click HERE.