Wednesday, March 22, 2023


A LEITRIM woman who lost her business as a result of the Post Office Horizon IT scandal has spoken publicly about her ordeal for the first time.

Kathy McAlerney ran the village post office within her Corner House shop between 2000 and 2007, but was left with no option but to close the premises after being wrongly accused of financial irregularities, which were actually the result of software glitches. Speaking to the Mourne Observer, the former subpostmistress confirmed that she was part of a group of 555 claimants from across the UK that had successfully taken legal action in 2019 against the Post Office over its Fujitsu developed Horizon system. Whilst this resulted in a settlement that saw the government-owned Post Office paying out £43m plus legal costs, much of this was swallowed up by funding the case, which has led to Business Secretary Grant Shapps recently confirming a new compensation scheme for these claimants.

A total of 736 subpostmasters and subpostmistresses were wrongly convicted between 2000 and 2014 – several served time in prison and at least four are reported to have taken their own lives – and, whilst a historical shortfall scheme was established, those within the 555- strong group were not eligible to apply for it.

Kathy explained that she took over the business, of which Leitrim’s post office was an integral part, in August 2000, and that it didn’t take long for “discrepancies to creep into the accounts”. Initially, these were relatively small amounts – which, as the business owner, she covered – but they gradually increased to hundreds of pounds, and just before Christmas 2006 a Post Office notice requesting £30,000 arrived. At this point, Kathy, pregnant with her fourth daughter, thought that there was “something really very wrong going on”, and contacted the Post Office’s helpdesk, who advised that the issue would be looked into.

The following month, January 2007, auditors arrived at the Leitrim shop to ask for payment of the £30,000 they claimed was missing. “I said to them that something is wrong here and that there is no £30,000,” said Kathy. “It was basically a very small rural post office, so there is no way you would have had that amount of money – it was out of all reasoning.”

An intervention by her line manager led the Post Office to subsequently state that the discrepancy was £3,000 – as opposed to 10 times that amount – though this latterly rose to almost £10,600. That same month, Leitrim Post Office was defunded and shut down, and all equipment relating to postal matters was removed. “I said that it needed looked into and that I thought there was errors with the equipment,” stated Kathy. “They said there were no problems with Horizon and that the problem was me, and I said that I hadn’t done anything. “Then the baby was born on 5 March, and a week or so after I went for an interview down in Belfast. “It was very antagonistic, like an interrogation. “They said that if you plead guilty you will escape going to jail, and I replied that I’m not pleading guilty to something I didn’t do. “But I was quite worried because I had four small children.” Within six months, the Corner House’s shop – the Country Foodstore – closed, though the neighbouring bar, which her husband Patrick runs, “managed to stay open despite everything”. “The shop closed because I couldn’t deal with it,” explained Kathy. “I couldn’t deal with everything that was going on. “We lost the business and it impacted us really badly – it impacted us financially and impacted me emotionally. “It really knocks your confidence that something you have built up and worked for, and had been doing so well, was suddenly just pulled out from under you in a matter of days. “It was unbelievable and it is just unfortunate as well, because lots of people locally did use the post office and the store, and it was just closed through no fault of mine. “I couldn’t understand it, as I was the only one working in the office. “I was thinking, ‘Am I doing something wrong?’ “And I would go through everything for hours, late at night when it would be quiet and when I could think – ‘How could that have happened? Did you press something wrong?’” Demands for payment persevered in the following years, in which Kathy said she was advised that “nobody else had ever had a problem with Horizon, and that it was only me”. “That lasted until about 2012 when they brought me to the High Court, but we reached a settlement outside, in which I had to agree to pay back some money in the future if I sold property,” she added. “It was round about then that I happened to accidently find out about the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance.”

Kathy serendipitously found out about the group – established to ‘expose the failures of the Post Office, its board and its management’ in relation to Horizon – in a newspaper article, and got in touch with its founder Alan Bates. “I was actually astounded to discover that there were other people affected,” she said. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s more’, and he replied, ‘There are hundreds of us’. “In the years after, I went to England for meetings and it was just so good to meet other people. “It was nearly like after a nuclear explosion when you find somebody else alive. “I have met some of the really high profile people, like Seema Misra who went to prison, and some of the other people who hadn’t done anything wrong, but were put in the position where they had to plead guilty to something they hadn’t done, which is really sad.”

The successful legal action followed in 2019, and Kathy took part in an ongoing public inquiry into the scandal when hearings were held in Belfast last year. Having returned to teaching following the loss of her shop, Kathy highlighted that it took a long time for some semblance of normality to return to her life. “Certainly I had to return to work, because the business had gone and financially it impacted us really badly,” she continued. “It would only be very recently that I have managed to fully free myself from all of that. “I think people knew something had happened, but they didn’t really know what to think. “Certainly, the gossip mill would have gone on about financial irregularities, but it was only really last March/April (with the public inquiry) when people started to grasp what really happened back then. “But I just couldn’t even talk about it, it was all just so much. “I think I am getting there now. “It has been a long time, and, in the initial years, it was that I hadn’t done anything wrong, but I still felt really bad about what had happened. “It was like trying to keep this secret so that nobody would find out about it. “Who was going to believe you? “It was nearly unbelievable even for me.”

With the new scheme (GLO Compensation Scheme) set to be delivered in the coming months, Kathy is keen for everyone impacted by the scandal – including “other people out there who, for whatever reason, haven’t come forward yet” – to be fairly compensated for their ordeals, which in most cases are now decades long. “It is still going, but I think the end is in sight,” said the Leitrim woman.

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