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Church leaders unite to slam banks over Northern Ireland economy

The four church leaders have united to condemn banks which they said were forcing decent Northern Ireland businesses to close.

Financial institutions are holding back the recovery and putting companies and their employers at risk, the clerics added.

Church of Ireland Archbishop Alan Harper, Roman Catholic Cardinal Sean Brady, President of the Methodist Church the Rev Paul Kingston and Presbyterian Moderator Dr Norman Hamilton want to meet the banks.

Archbishop Harper said: "There is a culture of aggression and threat where the only priorities are the banks' priorities."

The churchmen are concerned about significant inflation in interest rates and transaction charges; immediate withdrawal of overdrafts; the inaccessibility of decision makers; micro-management of a business's affairs and discrimination against areas like construction.

Archbishop Harper added: "It is becoming clear that there is a tangible risk to the economy through banks seeking too rapid a restoration of their own balance sheets.

"That risk translates into a threat to jobs and family income for the rest of us, inflicting additional misery on businesses and their employees."

He said the experience of some businesses was shocking, causing immense pressure and threatening closure and job losses.

Cardinal Brady said: "Many of those who have come to us for support have been placed under needless financial pressure when they are running solid businesses which have provided much-needed employment across Northern Ireland."

Mr Hamilton added: "At a time when Northern Ireland, through the efforts of its own politicians, local business people and entrepreneurs, is trying to strengthen and build the economy, it is ironic that many of the financial decisions needed to support it are being taken by people from elsewhere."

Gordon Best, regional director of the Quarry Products Association in Northern Ireland, said it was unacceptable how some financial institutions saved by public money were treating long-standing businesses.

"In Northern Ireland we are now faced with a situation of a public sector that is being sliced and much of the private sector being strangled by unethical banking practices. We need central government to act and to act now," he added.

Ulster Bank said it had already agreed to meet Archbishop Harper and other church leaders to discuss their concerns.

A statement added: "Ulster Bank is committed to working closely with our customers to help ensure the continued success of viable businesses. In 2009, Ulster Bank provided more than £290 million to around 1,000 small businesses and the bank is committed to lend £300 million to small businesses this year. Ulster Bank provided 80% of all lending by Northern Ireland banks through the enterprise finance guarantee (EFG) scheme, which was set up by the UK Government to support small firms at the margins of commercial lending decisions."

A spokesman for the British Bankers' Association (BBA) said: "Bank lending is not risk finance: it is debt finance. It is not the banks' money to risk; it is their customers. Therefore banks need borrowers to assure them they have a robust plan in place to ensure the money is repaid and will work with them to achieve this.

"The coalition of churches understands it has not yet taken account of the banks' perspective, and has invited the banks to meet with them to discuss the issues their parishioners raise. The British Bankers' Association looks forward to meeting with them and discussing their concerns in detail."

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