The bank took our money... and now it’s going to run?

In his weekly column John Arnold looks at the planned closure of Bank of Ireland branches around the country
The bank took our money... and now it’s going to run?

BRANCHING OUT: The former Provincial Bank building at 97, South Mall, Cork, built in 1825.

DO we live in a society or an economy? I was always under the impression that we in Ireland lived in what we call a social arrangement that we deemed ‘society’ and that the duty of the economy was to serve the Irish people. Now I’m not so sure.

It isn’t that long ago when the big commercial banks in this country were on the brink of insolvency, and literally on the point of going bust. The reasons why this situation came about were many and complex, but chief amongst them were reckless lending, profligacy in spending and vastly inflated wages and bonuses for those populating the top echelons in the banking hierarchy.

Should the banks ‘have gone to the wall’, they said, ‘twould be a disaster for the country and for both borrowers and lenders. So, the cabinet of the day or night burnt the midnight oil and a decision was made. Like Don Quixote of long ago, ‘Old Ireland’ came up trumps and saved the day and saved the commercial banks with a bail-out of gigantic proportions.

In fairness to the errant banks, they thanked the Irish State profusely and promised to ‘never be bold again’.

They say eaten bread is soon forgotten and so it has come to pass. The decision by the Bank of Ireland to close hundreds of branches all over the country is a fair kick in the teeth to all of us taxpayers.

We make up the economy, it was the Government, acting supposedly on our behalf, that decided to invest billions to keep the banks afloat.

At the time, it was stated that the ‘common good’ was best served by ensuring the survival of our beleaguered financial system.

Amnesia is described as ‘loss of memory’ and certainly our banks must have a bad dose of that particular ailment at present. The lame excuse offered in recent weeks for the branch closures was ‘declining footfall over recent years’ — sure, in the last year alone the ‘footfall’ to our banks probably fell by 80% because we were all told to stay at home.

Surely, if the Bank of Ireland had an ounce of moral compunction they would at least wait until we were well clear of this Covid pandemic before making such drastic decisions — then again, the words ‘moral’ and ‘bank’ are most unlikely bedfellows!

I know that so much banking and other financial transactions can now be done ‘online’ and in many cases can be completed in the privacy of one’s home. They tell us, those that know these things, that in 30 years’ time we will be a cashless society where notes and coins will simply be collectors items and in museum displays. The pace of change has been gathering apace over the last 20 years.

Think of it, if someone told me 30 years ago that I could get money from a hole in the wall or, even more astounding, I could purchase items in a myriad of shops with ne’er a penny, cent, euro or pound in my pocket — just a ‘tapping’ piece of plastic...

Yes, we have seen dramatic and profound changes in a short time. Here on our farm we used go through about 20 cheque books annually. That was the era when you’d write a cheque for £10 of petrol or a cheque for £5 for a bag of cement and maybe three or four cheques a week for groceries. All has changed now with credit cards, credit, transfers and the like.

I’m not for a second saying we should try and go back to ‘the way we were’. No, I understand we cannot halt progress in the same way King Canute couldn’t hold back the tide all those years ago. 

What really angers me though is that the economy now seems way more important than its constituent parts.

It’s more than 30 years now since we fought hard to save our local Sub Post Office. We lost that fight and in the intervening years another 1,000 communities all over this country have suffered the same fate.

I recall at the time championing the idea of the ‘One-Stop Shop’ in villages and small towns. The idea was that a combination of Post Office and banking services could be offered in the same location. Paying for passports, utility bills, photographs, photocopying, drivers’ permits and licences and many other services could be offered in the One Stop Shop.

I never met one department official, civil servant or politician who said it wouldn’t work. Of course it can work if the political will is there to promote and encourage the concept.

With decades, rural development has been a much-favoured concept and in fairness the EU Leader Scheme has been hugely successful, but ‘joined up thinking’ is still as scarce as hens’ teeth in Ireland.

As I said, we must embrace rather than reject modern technology, but progress cannot be used as an excuse to abandon hundreds of thousands of people who are not tech-savvy.

The Bank of Ireland, in closing hundreds of branches, say their business will transfer to the local Post Office, yet the Postmasters Union say another 200 Post Offices are in immediate danger of closure.

The Bank of Ireland were quick to grab the billions in bail-out cash given them and now a few years later they are morally bankrupt in their policies. Disgraceful and disgusting are the two most suitable words to describe their giving of the two-finger sign to towns and villages cross this nation.

Why is the Government so tardy in reprimanding the bank? They say the Government shouldn’t interfere with the day-to-day business decisions which are ‘commercially sensitive’. If that was an acceptable economic argument we should have left the banks go down the Swanee years ago. They can’t have it both ways — they take our cash when they are broke and yet give us absolutely nothing in return in the form of ‘social capital’.

I think the Taoiseach and Minister for Finance would want to give our Bankers a few lessons in how we want Irish society to work. Yes, we want a thriving economy, but not at any expense and certainly not by abandoning and marginalizing huge swathes of our population.

We need banks and Post Offices and why oh why aren’t these looked at as business opportunities rather than economic millstones? We love to condemn and castigate England for the cruel manner she ruled over us for 700 years, and certainly we had plenty reason to so complain. Yet it was this ‘foreign power’ that left us a century ago with a top-class railroad system that served nearly every corner of the country. We’ve spent the last 60 years dismantling that important infrastructure. A similar policy now seems to be insidiously pursued in relation to vital financial and public services — we can’t blame England this time.

These horrific policies affect us all but especially rural Ireland. 

Remember the late Paddy Sheehan TD predicting that before long all we’d have left in the countryside would be ‘Briars, bachelors and bullocks’? I’m sorry to say that Paddy was spot on.

Perhaps, in 30 years, we will have no cash, maybe no shops — drones delivering spuds, sushi and swimsuits, nothing only ‘tapping’ for everything from spending a penny to giving a ‘stand’ at Communions and Confirmations.

Maybe that’s futuristic, maybe only a dream, but if it happens, so be it. Well then, when Ireland is one big ‘theme park’ we won’t need Post Offices or banks. Leave 2050 take care of itself, meanwhile, please leave us the services we want, that we demand and are entitled to. This is 2021 and Irish society surely means more than profit and loss accounts.

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