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
Some have more idiosyncratic reasons for liking it. Hannah Delahunty and Ciara Baron are 13 years old and have been members since they were babies. Delahunty’s aunt works here and when she was younger she was allowed behind the counter. Why does she like it here? “It smells really nice,” she says.
Others have more fundamental reasons to appreciate it. Japanese-born Yosihide Tasaki lost his job as a care-worker over a year ago. He uses the credit union to save. He calls it “the people’s bank. I think it’s very important”.
The “people’s bank” is dealing with changing times. Most credit unions showed restraint during the Celtic Tiger, but many are dealing with the consequences of the recession. “The boom passed us by because it wasn’t unusual to get a piece of junk mail from a bank saying ‘phone this number and get €25,000,’ says Doyle. “We weren’t lending money so we had to put it somewhere . . . Then we lost money under the Anglo Irish Bank liquidation.” The Thomastown Credit Union lost €460,000. “I don’t know if the politicians thought of the consequences of that on local communities.”
The increasing demands for regulation, some outlined in last year’s Credit Union Act, also mean that the ethos of voluntarism and localism could be undermined over time.
“There are approximately 400 credit unions and the Central Bank would prefer to knock a zero off that,” says Doyle. “They have to deal with 400 returns and statements. That’s a lot of paperwork from their point of view. They might also argue that it would be more professional with a smaller number of credit unions.”
More complex rules also require professional training. While the regulation, Doyle stresses, is often very necessary, “it’s going to make it more difficult for community cooperatives to go on the way they’ve been going.”
Back behind the counter, the staff of Thomastown Credit Union reminisce. “Canon Carroll was a very clever man,” says Anna Minogue, who left her job as a meter-reader for the ESB, to become the credit union’s first full-time employee in 1991. “But he hated lending money for weddings,” she laughs. “He really had a thing about lending to weddings.”
Green recalls their first attempt to computerise back in the 1980s. “We were working with a company and the place was filled with boxes ready to be installed. Then they went bust. “We had all the stuff and no one to show us what to do with it,” says Minogue. But things usually worked out for the best. “People trust the credit union,” she adds. “They own the credit union; 95 per cent of the people who come in here you’d know personally and have an insight into their lives. Banks don’t have time for people. We know all f our members. And if I don’t know them, Anne-Marie will or Joe will or Marie will.” In the reception area, the photo of Canon Carroll seems to radiate his approval.