Investing in the people’s bank
Credit unions, sucked into a banking crisis that now threatens the viability of some, are the financial life-blood of many appreciative communities
State of the union: officials of Thomastown Credit Union, Co Kilkenny, from left, Joe Doyle, Anne-Marie Daly, Anna Minogue and Chris Green. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan
In the reception area of Thomastown Credit Union, there’s a Cromwellian cannonball in a glass display case. It was discovered in the walls of the building when it was being remade as a credit union in the mid 1990s and probably dates from when Cromwell was making a hames of Jerpoint Abbey down the road. Next to the cannonball sits a framed photograph of the late Canon Carroll, the stern-looking but smiling founder of this credit union.
“We have a Canon Carroll educational scholarship,” says Maria Maher, one of four tellers employed here. “I tell people the Canon Carroll scholarship forms are over by the cannonball. Some of them miss the joke.”
Thomastown Credit Union was established in 1969 and is one of over 400 such co-operatively-owned savings and loan institutions nationwide. Credit unions were established in the 1950s to address the needs of people ignored by the conventional banks and there are now more than 2.9 million credit union members.
“The credit union was known as poor person’s banks,” says the manager, Anne-Marie Daly. Traditionally run by members, in recent years more complex regulatory needs meant an increased requirement for professionally trained, full-time managers such as Daly. “Things just got too complicated,” says the current chairman, Joe Doyle.
For decades it was voluntarism and localism which kept the credit unions afloat. Doyle is a retired teacher who works here on a voluntary basis. “I’m involved in a lot of local voluntary organisations,” he says, and laughs. “I suppose I’m one of those people.”
Retired headmaster and current treasurer Chris Green managed the credit union on a voluntary basis before Daly was hired. “I joined as a member and was asked to be treasurer-manager on almost the same day more than 40 years ago,” he says.
“I think they had their eye on me. Nobody wants those jobs. We find even now that it’s difficult to get volunteers into the organisation, especially for the onerous kind of jobs. Then you read a letter at the meetings from the regulator about this and that and what the sanctions will be if you don’t comply. You do think ‘What the heck am I doing here?’ ”
Thomastown Credit Union currently has almost 5,000 members united by what the credit union movement terms a “common bond” of shared ownership and localism. The 15 directors, says Doyle, all live within a five-mile radius of the credit union. “We say ‘members’, not ‘customers’,” says Maher. “And we say ‘surplus’, not ‘profit’.”
The average loan is quite low and tends to be for things such as cars and home improvements. The highest, says Daly, is in the region of €25,000. “In recent years,” she says, “there’s been an increase in people borrowing for things like heating oil.”
Loans need to be “provident and productive” says Doyle. But they have over the years included holidays, gym and golf-club membership and musical equipment. They do not do business loans, but there are grey areas. “If a carpenter buys a new van or something, is that a business loan?” asks Doyle.
They want to help. In the credit controller’s office there is a calendar with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The only way to have a friend is to be one.”