Belfast Telegraph

Friday 28 November 2014

Let the North-South bodies bring errant banks to heel

The all-Ireland institutions have delivered little to date. A new role scrutinising banks may win them support, argues Henry McDonald

What have the North-South bodies done for you? If you leave aside the tokenism and the symbolism of these institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement that were designed to create a 'feel good factor' amongst northern nationalists, what have they achieved thus far?

The answer to that question thus far has to be, at its most charitable, very little. And in the current financial climate south of the border, there is less of an appetite than ever amongst the Republic's current rulers to spend billions of euros on grandiose north-south projects that will make the northern nationalist community feel it's somehow 'on its way' to unity while conversely unnerving the unionists.

Southern homeowners, around one million and a half of them, are bracing themselves for yet another financial penalty with the imposition of a €100 'household charge'. This latest levy on top of the 'Universal Social Charge' (brought in to help pay for the Republic's enormous welfare bill) is a condition of the International Monetary Fund/European Union bailout that brought the state back from the brink of bankruptcy last autumn.

Moreover, there is further pain in the pocket for homeowners coming down the line with state utility Irish Water warning of charges to households within the next two years.

Given the Herculean task the Fine Gael-Labour coalition has ahead in driving down the Republic's enormous national debt in the face of public anger over mounting, punitive and regressive taxes, who can blame anyone in Dublin who regards the North-South bodies as an expensive and inconsequential side show.

Yet there is one simple and effective way the defenders of the North-South institutions could argue for that would make these bodies tangible and real, and that involves the monitoring of those Irish banks that received billions in the bailout and who operate north of the border.

Wherever you live on this island, whether you be in the bar, the bus, the café, the bookies or the supermarket, one of the arch villains of any conversation will be the banks.

Despite receiving the cash to keep them going from the public purse, the banks are seen as unwilling to lend to medium and small business; greedy and bullying towards individual customers, particularly in relation to unjustified bank charges; uncaring towards families, where breadwinners have lost their jobs and stubbornly negative towards those seeking new mortgages to buy their first homes.

Now under pressure from both the government and mindful of the public hatred of them, some banks are beginning, slowly, to change their attitude.

At the start of this week, the Allied Irish Bank (known as First Trust in Northern Ireland) hinted that it may be willing to offer customers some kind of debt forgiveness, especially for those struggling with their mortgages.

If the banks start to behave more benignly across the border, will those same more-or-less state-owned institutions do the same for their northern customers? One way to pressurise them to do so would be the establishment of a high-powered cross-border bank monitoring body which could take evidence and haul top banking officials up to explain themselves in both parliaments on this island.

There are, at present, legions of personal financial advisers and accountants based in Northern Ireland who would queue up to hand over dossiers of bad bank behaviour to such a North-South parliamentary bank monitoring committee.

It could have the power to name and publicly shame those southern taxpayer-backed banks over any unfair treatment towards northern customers.

After all, one of the great catchwords of the Good Friday Agreement was 'parity of esteem'.

Ensuring a level playing field for all customers with these banks could turn out to be perhaps the greatest pragmatic achievement of what nationalist politicians in the north call 'the All-Ireland Institutions'.

Nor would such a practical, helpful development scare unionists because many of them are, after all,also customers of some of these banks.

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