Belfast Telegraph

Minister Hamilton urged to fight for banks in rural areas in Northern Ireland

By Noel McAdam

Economy Minister Simon Hamilton has been urged to intervene to help maintain a strong network of banks in rural areas.

A final motion on the Assembly's first 'Opposition' day also asked the DUP minister to help safeguard country communities from further closures.

But Mr Hamilton revealed a protocol requiring banks to examine alternative arrangements when considering branch closures - particularly the last branches left in towns - does not apply in Northern Ireland.

Furthermore, regulation of financial services is overseen by Westminster rather than the devolved governments, he said.

But he added: "I would encourage our banks to ensure they take informed decisions that take full account of the likely impact on local and particularly rural communities."

Ulster Unionist Steve Aiken said Consumer Council figures show that by next February more than 77 branches will have closed.

The total is over a period of the last four years, which he said amounted to just over 30% of the banking network.

Kellie Armstrong of the Alliance Party argued: "Where there is market failure, there needs to be intervention from government, especially for the older generation who do not trust online banking."

The SDLP motion voiced "alarm" that large rural areas are being left without access to a local branch and said closures are having a negative economic impact on small businesses and on future investment opportunities.

The party's Richie McPhillips said: "Despite promises of no more bank closures in 2013, on July 20 this year, the Bank of Ireland announced that it will close eight branches in Castlereagh, Draperstown, Antrim, Belleek, Castlederg, Newtownards, Maghera and Donegall Square South in Belfast.

"Staff, customers and businesses have been left completely in the dark.

"The Assembly needs to make a clear statement that we will not sit back and allow the gradual erosion of services through stealth."

Belfast Telegraph


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