Brussels puts Irish insurance industry under the spotlight

Business Week: Security at WhatsApp; Dublin’s booming hotel market; and banks

It began in July 2017 when officials from the European Commission and the State’s competition watchdog raided the offices of a series of Irish insurance companies, as well as the industry’s representative body.

Almost two years later, it emerged this week that later the commission has initiated a formal investigation into whether Insurance Ireland has been operating a cartel by restricting access to a claims database.

The inquiry centres on whether the organisation has restricted access to Insurance Link, which allows its members and large corporations that insure themselves to access the claims history of individuals seeking to take out a new policy with a fresh provider.

Separately, the Competition and Consumer Protection Committee (CCPC) is in the “latter stages” of an investigation it launched almost three years ago into whether motor insurers and brokers have engaged in anti-competitive practices.

Cases of competition law breaches can lead to fines of up to €5 million or 10 per cent of a company’s annual sales, as well as imprisonment for up to 10 years.

Over at the High Court, a payment of more than €8.3 million out of the State’s Insurance Compensation Fund was approved arising from the liquidation of Maltese-registered insurer Setanta.

WhatsApp security breach

Moving away from insurance, there is another investigation underway at Facebook-owned WhatsApp following – you guessed it – a security breach.

WhatsApp urged the company’s 1.5 billion users to update their apps as a precaution after hackers remotely installed surveillance software on phones and other devices using the messaging service. The vulnerability allows hackers to install spyware on your phone that will trawl through everything – contacts, messages, calls and other data – without your knowledge. The software was developed by Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO Group.

Unlike other attacks, you don’t even have to click on a suspicious link or open a file; it can be injected into the phone through a missed WhatsApp call. The software can also activate the phone’s camera and microphone without your knowledge, and delete evidence of the call having been made.

Helen Dixon, head of the Irish Data Protection Commission, said she was "intensively pursuing" answers from WhatsApp to find out if and how many European users are affected.

Elsewhere, Intel revealed a vulnerability in its chips that could lead them to leak data to attackers. Known as ZombieLoad, the problem exists in all Intel chips made since 2011, though the chipmaker said its latest microprocessors had been fixed.

Dublin hotel market booming

The capital's hotel market is booming these days – so much so that Fáilte Ireland last month claimed Dublin "badly needs" a 1,000-bedroom hotel.

While that suggestion was rubbished by Dalata chief executive Pat McCann at the time, there is still plenty of activity happening. The owners of the historic Wynn’s Hotel in Dublin 1, for one, have secured permission for a large extension to the hotel.

An Bord Pleanála gave the go-ahead for a two-storey extension to the hotel on Dublin’s Abbey Street despite the board’s own inspector recommending refusal. It will involve increasing the number of floors from five to seven, adding 27 new bedrooms.

The hotel is a major historical landmark. It staged the first meeting to establish the Irish Volunteer Force in 1913 and was bombed during the 1916 Rising before being rebuilt in 1921.

Just across the River Liffey, the Mercantile Group has been told by Dublin City Council to reduce the scale of its planned ¤10 million revamp of the Mercantile Hotel. The group is planning a six-storey vertical extension following its purchase of Dame House for €7.5 million in 2017. However, the council has reservations about the scale, mass and height of the proposed rear extension to the existing buildings.

The sale of the five-star Conrad Hotel off St Stephen's Green is expected to be concluded shortly for around €118 million. The hotel's current owners have entered into exclusive talks with European hotel investor, Archer Hotel Capital BV, with a view to completing the transaction in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, a wide range of Irish and international investors are expected to express their interest in the five-star Marker Hotel, which has also come on to the market at a guide price of €125 million.

The hotel is currently owned by Midwest Holding, and an investor group led by Kevin McGillycuddy’s Brehon Capital Partners. They snapped it up for about €30 million eight years ago.

The hotel is bang in the centre of the action down in the docks, near Facebook’s European HQ and less than 100 metres from the soon-to-be-constructed U2 Visitor Centre on Hanover Quay.

Bankers called on to put ‘skin in the game’

Bank of Ireland shares have fallen by almost 30 per cent in the past year, and board members were this week accused of having little "skin in the game" due to their low levels of holding in the company.

The bank’s annual report showed its 11 directors at the end of last year had a median holding of 1,639 shares, valued at less than €8,000 at the time. Chairman Patrick Kennedy had by far the largest position, with 105,156 shares, while chief executive Francesca McDonagh held 2,000.

“You represent us, you need some skin in the game,” said one of two shareholders to raise concerns over the matter at the annual general meeting.

Meanwhile, KBC Bank Ireland’s new chief executive Peter Roebben said he does not believe the bank will be following the example of other lenders and selling problem owner-occupier loans. That came as rival Ulster Bank confirmed it does plan to sell owner-occupier loans in a disposal of an impaired portfolio later this year.

Finally, a merger between Permanent TSB and another financial institution is not appropriate at this stage, but the bank must make “further tough decisions” over the coming years, its chairman Robert Elliott said.

The lender must reduce its ratio of non-performing loans below the current level of 10 per cent, “address issues in our pricing model for existing mortgage customers” and lower its high cost base, he added.