Time to give credit unions the respect they have earned

It hasn’t been easy to be positive about the future of our rural communities these past few weeks. The closure of banks and ATM machines in several towns in this region cast a shadow over the ability of local business people and residents in sparsely populated areas to be able to continue living and trading in the local community without suffering major inconvenience or being burdened with extra expenditure in different parts of their daily life.

I know I should point out that the services of the banks that have been closed will be shared by other bank branches in the county, and will still be available online. But, as somebody who has banked through the medium of the Internet for a good ten years now, I would still prefer to have the option of calling into my local bank branch from week to week when it comes to getting my own personal business done. That’s my personal point of view.

On all occasions when I want to discuss my personal finances I not only like to meet bank staff face to face, I usually insist on it. I rely on the professionalism of the people I know who work in the local bank to facilitate those meetings – which they usually do – and to follow up the action required to a similarly professional standard.

The effect of the recent closures on people in business is even more acute. A publican I know has strong opinions about the erosion of the bank’s services. “We need change for our tills every Friday”, he reminded me this week. “Now they want me to drive another 20 miles to get the coinage. Even then, they don’t want to open a counter for this specific service. It’s as if they don’t want our business at all any more”.

Every bank in the country has closed the doors of smaller branches over the last ten years. A total of 88 local branches shut for the last time earlier this month, with the bank claiming the decision is due to it having reached a “tipping point” between online and offline business. I am not sure if more experienced and older customers would agree that such a tipping point is indeed fair or relevant to them.

Covid has also played a role. When announcing the controversial move in March 2021, the banks said footfall at the branches selected for closure fell by 60 per cent on average between 2017 and last year, and that its mobile phone app was now its “busiest channel”, with 430,000 users logging in each day.

The mobile phone app is seriously handy – of that there is no doubt – but how many of the elderly customers of the banks in Strokestown or Ballyhaunis would be able to use it at this time of their life is another issue. As for switching accounts from one bank to another, I sometimes feel a doctorate is often the key qualification needed to get this done properly and quickly.

What I consider most objectionable about all bank closures is the fact that equality for rural folks alongside their counterparts in cities just seems to go out the window. As a friend with a shop said to me on the bank closure day, “maybe it is not so significant if you are in the city and there is another branch down the road, but this is a continuation of the erosion of a lot of businesses in rural Ireland. Are we second class citizens?”

In addition to claims about better online and telephone banking options, some of the banks closing say that An Post have entered into an arrangement with them which they say will protect local access to over-the-counter banking. Customers will be able to make deposits and withdrawals at hundreds of post office branches. These will be effective at some stages and for specific transactions, but I for one would not be keen on possibly having to discuss my own family account business at a counter in the middle of any local post office. In my mother and father’s day the visit to the bank always had a much more serious tone to it. The bank was a place of importance. With due respect to post offices – many of them now fixed in very different settings – if I wanted to know about the interest rate I’m getting on my current account or a loan, I wouldn’t care for a debate in that ‘new’ public location.

The fact is that many older people prefer to have the independence of going to their local bank branch. They want to mind their own business, and would prefer if it was kept that way. The agencies who look after the views of the elderly says that with this choice is gone in many places, there is now a greater risk of elder abuse, as people not in a position to travel or use online services will have to hand their financial affairs over to relatives, neighbours and friends. In the past we have sometimes seen the result of this in the courts (as prosecutions resulted). Nobody wants to see more of that.

Many people quite rightly feel this is a ‘slap in the face’ for people who kept the banks going for decades with their annual fees, that it poses a tremendous loss to locals. For years these ‘little people’ have ignored a plethora of offers to change their business, to look to offers of lower interest rates or charges. This is their reward now. Does loyalty mean anything any more? It certainly doesn’t appear to.

I think the move to shut down the ATMs in many of these towns is also unforgivable. Before you even mention cashback services in shops, let me say that I hold the firm belief one shouldn’t have to go into a shop or a public house just to get cash for another service there that does not include a purchase for something in that premises. This move means people living in some communities will no longer have 24/7 access to cash. It really could have been avoided.

I remember when the bank in Lanesboro was closed down some years back and the same issue was flagged well before the closure date. We had only campaigned as a community for the ATM to be put in a few years previously and here they were about to remove it again. I am pleased to say that the bank actively engaged with local business to try and find a new home on an outside wall for the ATM service, and Bernard Keane was progressive enough to allow the machine go into the external wall of his SuperValu store. That required vision, but it was done – and the town has 24-hour access to cash ever since.

Despite the growth in popularity of the cashless service, we really needs a commitment from the Central Bank that the banking network will not disappear, and that they will be proactive in ensuring that communities and vulnerable people will not once again be hit hardest. I also feel an agreement of some type could be forged with the Credit Union movement around the country, as they have fine premises’ in most of the towns affected. The banks must be encouraged and indeed persuaded strongly that they must continue to provide this basic service for their customers. If it means subsidising the local credit union to open an ATM on their outside wall, then so be it. Some credit unions in larger towns already have the ATMs in. Others might well have done it by now if they were not being continuously pressured by the authorities to merge with neighbours or change their other traditional practices.

I have nothing but admiration for the stoic work done by volunteers in local credit unions down the years. It is time they were treated with a bit of respect for the work they do – and given the opportunity to expand instead of shrink their services. The public trust our credit unions and the people who run them, so maybe it’s time to reward that trust with some more responsibility for maintaining the crucial local banking service – and the sooner the better.