Northern Ireland banks accused of greed over rural branch shutdown
Northern Ireland banks have been accused of "abandoning customers" in favour of chasing profit during an Assembly debate on rural branch closures.
Several MLAs taking part in the debate - on the Assembly's first day operating with an official Opposition - claimed they knew businesspeople who had to undertake 60-mile round trips to visit their nearest banks.
And others said there were concerns that plans to replace branch services with the Post Office and internet banking were not enough.
The problems raised included increased isolation for older people, and reduced footfall in towns where banks had closed leading to a knock-on effect on other businesses in the area.
First Minister Arlene Foster recently joined a protest over the planned closure of the Bank of Ireland in Belleek in her constituency. And yesterday, members from all around the province spoke of the impact of branch closures on their communities.
Steve Aiken, Ulster Unionist MLA for South Antrim, said there were "extreme" consequences to many rural businesses and bank customers.
He commented: "It's the time physically spent to travel a 50 to 60-mile round trip, the security aspect of carrying a large cash deposit and the impact on the town caused by the lack of footfall when the branch closes."
He added that many older members of the community had no interest in using online banking services, even if they had good internet infrastructure, due to a mistrust of remote banking and unmanned deposit services. North Down DUP MLA Gordon Dunne added that the effect of the closures was exacerbated by some shutting doors at lunchtime.
He said: "They talk about customer focus and putting people first but it seems to be all about putting profits first."
Responding to the MLAs, Economy Minister Simon Hamilton said he would hold further meetings with senior bankers, and had already met with representatives of Ulster Bank, Danske and Bank of Ireland.
SDLP's Richie McPhillips said there was "anger and frustration" felt at the decline of rural services and told members how 7,000 people had signed a petition recently to save Belleek's Bank of Ireland branch from closure.
Almost 80 Northern Ireland bank branches have closed within the last four years - a third of the region's bank network. Earlier this year, Bank of Ireland announced it was closing eight branches - leaving it with 28.
SDLP MLA for South Down, Colin McGrath, added: "This is not just a Bank of Ireland issue, it seems to be all banks - we don't want to sit back and watch a gradual retreat of anything from our rural areas.
"This is not about broadband, it's not about online banking. If we ended up with super broadband across the north that is not enough. It still results in reduced footfall in our towns and isolation for our older people and that is not enough."
Wilfred Mitchell from the Federation of Small Businesses said that internet services could not replace branches. "Many businesses rely on cash and cheque transactions with their customers, and the closure of bank branches increases the risks they face in storing these on their premises, as well as transiting larger amounts of money over longer distances."
Financial Services Union general secretary, Larry Broderick, said of yesterday's Assembly discussion: "The debate was an opportunity for the Assembly to focus its mind on the very serious issue of communities losing access to basic banking services. We hope that the debate now focuses the minds of banks on their responsibilities to these communities.
"This is an issue which the FSU has raised in recent years, but the decision of Bank of Ireland to close eight of its branches has helped bring those concerns to a head.
"It is imperative that the banking sector faces up to this issue and agrees a strategy that doesn't leave already isolated communities bereft of essential services."