B-EXIT: Banks walking  away from rural Ireland

For years, the slick marketing gurus – most of whom wouldn’t know a cow from a sheep – have patronised rural communities, assuring families who have had decades of interaction with the banks that these institutions have some credible social conscience, an unwavering loyalty to their customers, an instinctive empathy with people.

Whatever about the dogs in the street, even the cows and sheep knew it was always a dubious claim.

This past week we’ve seen all our cynicism about such financial institutions being justified.

Sadly, any complaining we’ve done about the ruthlessness and lack of loyalty of banks is now afforded an indisputable credibility by the presence (in the near future) of empty grand old buildings which for many decades were bustling, familiar and comforting hubs where commerce and community successfully blended.

I don’t wish to discredit the positive contributions made by banks over the decades, and I certainly have no intention of undermining the excellent service provided by bank employees.

I acknowledge also that, historically, the local bank has been an extremely important and supportive driver in the local economy. No question about that.

And the greatest strength of those banks has always been their ‘front of house’ staff. They are the friendly faces, the first ‘points of contact’ (to use that rather impersonal phrase). Crucially, for many years these staff brought something very important to their dealings with customers: local knowledge and experience.

The decency and friendliness of ‘on the ground’ banking staff never changed over the years, but their working environment did. Increasingly, they came under stress and pressure, as traditional banking went through dramatic changes, many of which were inevitable, and some of which have been positive.

What was inevitable was the embracing, by the banking industry, of new technology/digital advances. Many of the developments that resulted were positive ones. I certainly won’t deny that day to day banking, at least for most people, is easier now than in the past. But it is not easier for all people.

What wasn’t so positive was the deliberate depersonalisation of banking, and the withdrawal of discretion from middle management at local branch level.

In recent years – and it hasn’t been helped by the banks’ tendency to move employees between branches and roles – customers have despaired as the traditional type of interaction we enjoyed with familiar staff has faded.

These days, even when one does get speaking to a staff member that you know/recognise, there is always the sense that they no longer have any of the discretion that their predecessors had.

Trust me, it’s not us, it’s them – and when I say ‘them’, I mean the institutions, not the front of house staff. While I understand there are inevitable consequences of Internet Banking and the digital drive, the faceless banking chiefs have done nothing to arrest the depersonalisation of their service.

This past week or so we are seeing the true colours of banks which have been a bit too hasty to portray themselves as loyal supporters of the communities they are based in.

Hot on the heels of the Ulster Bank announcing it is pulling out of Ireland, Bank of Ireland ruthlessly shuts 103 branches on this island…including those in Strokestown, Elphin, Ballygar. These closures, reportedly effective from this September, represent a hammer blow to these communities.

Banks are in the business of profits, but does that commercial reality completely absolve them of any obligation to, for example, struggling rural towns and villages? Does the loyalty of generations of families count for nothing? Does the fact that many people have no knowledge of online banking matter? What about elderly people who are living in isolated areas, who’ve always banked in person, many of them now fearful and demoralised over this latest withdrawal of key services in their community? Does the pandemic and the financial stresses it has brought count for anything?

And so a landmark, magnificent building in Strokestown – and striking buildings in Elphin and Ballygar – are to close, with all of the negative societal impact. There is also, of course, the concern for the implications for staff.

There is, in these sweeping closures, a disregard for rural communities, for elderly customers, for those who are not into digital banking, for the very fabric and wellbeing of the impacted towns.

On Monday, the Bank of Ireland justified its decision to close over 100 branches with reference to the rise of digital banking.

The bank lays responsibility for ‘Operation Closure’ at the ‘door of technology’, conveniently overlooking the fact that such banks have very deliberately changed their way of doing business in recent years – blatantly making personal ‘on the ground’ banking less accessible.

The Bank of Ireland points to reduced footfall in its branches – something that is hardly surprising, given the cold, more impersonal culture they themselves created. It is also the case that many areas have not been provided with ATM services, the very least they might have expected as the digital rush intensified.

We are not mugs. In recent years, we’ve watched as some bank branches reduced their counter space, scaled back on front of house staff, and generally made what were once engaging, communal environments colder and less inclusive. (One might have phoned in to complain of this trend were it not for the fact that successfully phoning a bank is now more difficult than climbing Everest).

The marketing gurus, the highly-paid top brass and the faceless number-crunchers have won the day. A few years on from the great bail-out of Irish banks, we have a banking exodus – this not so grand B-exit.

This is a badly timed, harsh, ruthless and disloyal withdrawal by the Bank of Ireland. It is a lamentable disservice to the local economy, and specifically to loyal customers.

Our concern now is for the staff, the customers, the communities affected. Rural Ireland must continue to pick up the pieces.