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Ulster Bank’s closure of nine branches in Northern Ireland is another blow to rural customers

The closure of nine Ulster Bank branches across Northern Ireland in the coming months has been dubbed a blow to rural communities, with fears that older customers will be left behind.

The bank is to close branches in Holywood, Warrenpoint, Dunmurry, Antrim, Ballymoney, Larne, Comber, Maghera and Clogher within the next three months as part of the ongoing move towards digital banking.

In Comber, Ulster Bank is located in a historic stone building just off the main town square. It has been part of the fabric of the community for many years and is the last bank left in the town, after Danske Bank closed in 2020.

Comber resident Sharon McCready (64), said it was terrible news: “I don’t drive, and the next branch for me is in Ards, so I would have to get the bus.

“It was always handy doing my banking in Comber when I was out doing the shopping, but now it’ll be a great loss for the town.”

Ben Ennis works in the local pharmacy and said the bank closure will be a blow to businesses.

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“It’s convenient for lodging money or getting change for the tills, so we don’t know what we’re going to do now instead,” he said.

“It’s the last bank in the town and very central, so it will definitely leave a gap, especially for our older customers who are doing messages, filling prescriptions and doing their banking.”

Alan Henry (77), meanwhile, said the latest move by Ulster Bank “was only a matter of time” and he has been happy banking online for the past 15 years.

“Yes, it’s sad the [town’s] last bank is closing, but you can still avail of the post office and ATMs for withdrawals, so this move was only part of the progress of how things are moving,” he said.

Commissioner For Older People Eddie Lynch said he is “disappointed” to hear of the closures.

“Many older people prefer to do their banking in person and rely on local branches as a safe way to save and access their money,” he said. “Some are unable [to do online banking] due to a disability and will now be left without a physical bank in their community.”

He added that older people should not be “forced” to go digital and said that it is important that banks now work with their customers moving forward to “identify their needs and support those who have difficulty in using or accessing online banking services”.

A spokesperson for Age NI added that, while they understand the commercial decisions for closing the branches, “there is an onus on the banking industry to ensure older customers don’t get left behind” when decisions are made to close branches, particularly in rural areas.

“Measures should be in place to mitigate the drive towards online banking, which can place older people in a difficult position,” they said. “The fear of losing money through scams, or indeed errors, remains a huge barrier to entry for older people adopting digital technology.”

Ulster Bank said the move was prompted by shifting customer behaviour “to mobile and online banking” and close to 90% of the needs of its retail banking customers can be met by online services. It also said each of the branch closures are within one mile of a free ATM and customers can still use services offered by the post office to withdraw/deposit cash at any of its branches.

An Ulster Bank spokesperson said: “As with many industries, most of our customers are shifting to mobile and online banking, because it’s faster and easier for people to manage their financial lives. We understand and recognise that digital solutions aren’t right for everyone, or every situation, and that when we close branches we have to make sure that no one is left behind.

“We take our responsibility seriously to support the people who face challenges in moving online, so we are investing to provide them with support and alternatives that work for them.”