From top: Bank of Ireland CEO Frances McDonagh this week announced the closure of 130 branches; Grace Garvey
Did Bank of Ireland’s advertising boffins have Brendan Kennelly’s poem ‘Begin’ in mind when choosing their ‘Bank of Ireland Begin‘ tagline, I wonder. ‘Begin to the pageant of queuing girls,’ if you insist on bothering a cashier.
I was more than a little dubious when listening to the bank’s boss, Francesca McDonagh, on Morning Ireland earlier this week placing responsibility for the closure of 103 branches firmly at the feet of her customers. According to McDonagh, they had abandoned their local bank in droves, preferring to do business online.
My last trip to a branch, pre-Pandemic, was a shambles. The tiny suburban branch was jammed with office workers on lunch break. Rather than have all tellers on deck to facilitate the lunchtime rush, they had just one counter open, while another member of staff did her best to divert people to a series of ATMs.
The queue moved at a snail’s pace and by the time I got within spitting distance of the front – and mindful of the five-minute drive back to work for a 2 o’clock meeting – I had to down tools and leave. Mission not accomplished and an hour lost.
This frustration has been shared by countless bank customers over the past 10 years, and suggests that people have not abandoned their local banks; they have been pushed out as part of a long-standing plan, dating as far back as the mid-80s, to get rid of the branch network and move customers online. It is disingenuous of McDonagh to claim otherwise.
The reasoning behind the shift towards automation was obviously to cut costs – as was the decision to outsource production support to India – but also to eliminate human error, on the basis that better lending decisions are made by computer algorithm than a fallible human. It was felt that a bank manager might be swayed by sentiment when dealing with someone they knew.
A friend and I were reminiscing lately about a personable bank manager we once shared. He was such a pleasure to deal with that we both followed him when he was posted to a new branch. He knew his customers well: where we lived, where we worked, what kind of car we drove – and how seriously we were likely to take repayments if he gave us a loan.
He was keen to drum up business for the bank and would always try to recycle the money he had just loaned you in the local economy. For instance, signing off on a motor loan, he might ask casually what kind of car you had in mind and lo and behold, his local dealership – also a customer – had exactly that model, and before you knew it, you were driving out their forecourt with your new wheels.
The value of relationships of this kind, developed over years, count for the little in the latest scheme. The social dividend isn’t something the banks factor in. Lending dictated by algorithm as opposed to lending to the person is seen as progress from the bank’s point of view, but lending will always have an element of risk if the economy is to grow. Besides, how fail-safe is it really if a bewigged couple can create multiple fake accounts and swindle the bank of thousands over a couple of years?
In October 2006, the Bank of Ireland in Glenamaddy, Co Galway, closed its doors for the last time. Since then, the Ulster Bank branch has followed suit, as well as the Garda Station and several businesses and pubs.
Locals claim the initial closure ruined the town. People who used to come from surrounding villages to bank were forced to drive to bigger towns, and ended up shopping there as well. Once busy streets are now deserted. ‘You drive through the town and it’s dead; the streets are empty, even before Covid,’ a local school teacher says.
Those most affected are elderly people, particularly those who no longer drive. They’ve had to forego their privacy to enlist adult offspring to do their banking online. Younger people, many of whom bank with Revolut or N26, are unaffected. But plenty of the over-40s, who are at home online, either have no interest in online banking or don’t trust it.
Most farmers over 60 couldn’t care less about internet banking, I’m told. They don’t want a cashless society and are wary of scams. Patchy broadband is also an issue. These dissenters feel ignored and can’t understand why the Government hasn’t objected to the latest closures, when policy purports to endorse economic and social development in rural areas such as theirs.
As any banker will tell you, the Bank of Ireland is a private enterprise, albeit one in which the Government has a stake of 14%. Sure, it got a bailout from the taxpayer in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, but that’s been repaid in full. They’ll talk about how challenging Irish banking is right now, with onerous Central Bank capital requirements, data protection, no margins and low interest rates.
But the fact remains that Bank of Ireland made a handsome profit of €758 million in 2019. Granted it took a hit last year on foot of bad debts on loans that cannot be repaid due to Covid-19, but it returned to profitability in the second half of the year. So, it’s fair to say the bank is profitable overall.
Given its position at the heart of communities countrywide down the years, it remains to be seen whether financial inclusion will be part of its Corporate Social Responsibility remit in future.
If we’ve learned anything from lockdown, it must surely be the importance of the personal touch, of having a human at the end of the phone. This is not just a question of urban-rural balance, it’s equally a virtual-real dilemma.
It’s not about stopping the march of time or being a neo-luddite, it’s about using this pause in activities to appraise the commercial landscape and decide how we as a society want to live.
Relentless automation continues to lay waste to livelihoods, while funnelling wealth into the pockets of a few. When a corporate entity urges us to begin, it suggests wiping the slate clean. Let’s not lose sight of all that is rich about life as we know it before rushing to obey.
‘Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.’
Grace Garvey is a Communications and Content Marketing Strategist. Grace can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.