UB announces phased withdrawal from Irish market

Customers received a formal email on Monday evening, saying they need do “nothing”. There would be no immediate impact to services, and advised people to “simply continue” to bank “as normal”.

The rumour mill had been churning all week long. The writing was on the wall and, on Thursday evening, just after local staff shut-up shop for the day, the axe finally fell.

Ulster Bank, the State’s third biggest lender, a brand synonymous with this region for 180 years, confirmed the brand would soon disappear from the retail landscape in the 26 counties.

Staff were informed of the decision by email. It explained why parent company NatWest was, following “extensive review”, preparing a “phased withdrawal” from the Irish market in the coming years. There are three branches operating in the county at Cavan Town, Ballyconnell and Ballyjamesduff employing around 40 staff between them.

The departure would be “managed” in an orderly and “considered manner”, parent company NatWest assured them.

Staff treated ‘shabbily’

The following morning (Friday), the Financial Services Union (FSU), which represents workers, accused Ulster Bank of treating its staff “very shabbily”.

While Ulster Bank chief executive, Jane Howard, said no branches will close this year, one local bank worker, who spoke to the Celt on a condition of anonymity, said the news was “upsetting”.

She had worked at the bank since leaving college in her 20s. “It’s all I know... We’ll be lucky if we get one maybe two more years out of it for some branches.”

For her, and others, the worry now is what next? “You’ll see some of the smaller [branches] close soon enough I think. The other banks will move in now and take what they can off the books. I can’t see there being much need for branch staff after all is said and done.”

Customers received a formal email on Monday evening, saying they need do “nothing”. There would be no immediate impact to services, and advised people to “simply continue” to bank “as normal”.

Ulster Bank will eventually close its remaining three branches in Co Cavan, as well as others in Monaghan Town, Longford, Mullingar and Navan. Its understood that some of these branches may be saved under a different brand in the future as part of ongoing negotiations.

‘Massive blow’

Susan Willis is a member of the Ballyjamesduff Community Council and a small business owner in the south-east Cavan town.

She says the branch closure there has come as a “massive blow”.

“It’ll be devastating, we know that, because when Kilnaleck closed, the Ballyjamesduff branch became even busier. So it’ll be crushing in the sense that it’s another service lost and another reason for people not to come into the town to do business.”

The latest change to Ulster Bank’s corporate structure, which is still expected to maintain a presence in the north, follows the closure of the large swathe of branches in recent years.

Belturbet, Killeshandra, Kilnaleck, and a part-time operation in Swanlinbar closed all in 2013, along with the bank’s branch in Castlepollard. The following year branches in Clones and Castleblayney in Co Monaghan; Granard in Co Longford and Manorhamilton, Co Leitrim, also shut.

Then in 2017, the lender closed two more branches locally - this time in Arva and Cootehill.

Barry Wilson was the chair of Belturbet Town Council and was to the fore in lobbying Ulster Bank’s hierarchy to reverse its decision at the time. They stood with placards and met with regional bosses. Ultimately their effort came to nought.

“There’s no way of getting around it, the loss of a bank in a town is massive,” says Mr Wilson. “It was catastrophic. When it happened to Belturbet there were other things happening at that time too. But you look at what’s happening now, Covid, Brexit, it’s not good. The centre of towns are a lot quieter when something like a bank closes its doors.”

Despite the prevailing sense of doom and gloom, Mr Wilson stresses the potential for positives.

He suggests the closure of the branch in Belturbet forced locals to explore alternatives, and embrace online banking more quickly. Other businesses began offering tap payment and cash-back facilities, as well as promoting banking through the Credit Union and Post Office. “Life moves on,” is Mr Wilson’s blunt assessment with hindsight. “At the end of the day, the bank isn’t going to change its mind. We know that. But there are positives that can come of this.”

Ahead of last week’s announcement, Ulster Bank had a net loan book of €20 billion and almost €22 billion of deposits, around 1.1 million customers across a network of 88 branches, employing 2,800 people nationally.

NatWest says it plans to sell an estimated €4 billion of performing commercial loans to rival bank, AIB.

It has also begun talks with Permanent TSB (PTSB) and other strategic banking companies to explore their potential interest in buying “certain retail and SME assets, liabilities and operations”.

There are calls now for the matter to be debated in Leinster House.

Fianna Fáil TD for Cavan-Monaghan Brendan Smith said NatWest’s decision to withdraw Ulster Bank will “impact severely on staff, customers and many communities throughout the country”.

Leas Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann and Cavan Fine Gael Senator Joe O’Reilly expressed his deep regret and concern also. “I will be reaching out to the CEO of Cavan Monaghan Education and Training Board, Mr John Kearney, my colleagues in Government, and other State agencies, to ensure that there is proactive engagement with Ulster Bank staff in terms of options to retrain and upskill, and so that staff can be supported and mentored in that process,” stated Senator O’Reilly.

Labour Representative Liam van der Spek meanwhile described the withdrawal as a “hammer blow”, suggesting what needed to be avoided was a “piecemeal dismantling” of the bank and its operations by “vulture funds and other Irish banks”, which could damage any effort to create a banking brand in Ulster Banks place. “It is incumbent on the government and the Minister for Finance to drive such an outcome rather than acting as commentators.”