Finance union chief calls for ‘pause’ on bank branch closures for five years

Call at Financial Services Union conference in Belfast is to give time to consider future of branch banking

A call for a five-year moratorium on bank branch closures North and South of the Border was backed by delegates at the Financial Services Union (FSU) conference in Belfast on Saturday.

The motion was one of a number adopted that expressed support for the safeguarding of access to cash and provision of financial services and advice, all of which were seen as important to communities and, in particular, older customers.

FSU general secretary John O’Connell said the scale of bank bailouts received after the 2008 crash continued to give the debate on branch closures a moral aspect.

“We need the banks to remember that it was the people in these communities who bailed out their business,” Mr O’Connell said. “We are not saying they can never close branches but we are saying it would be reasonable to pause the closures now for five years, so everyone can consider what is on the horizon.”


Roger James, representing the AIB sector, told the conference the issue of closures has had an “unbelievable” impact on staff over the years. He said opposition to additional closures was not just about protecting jobs but also about protecting communities.

“People need and want access to cash, access to services,” Mr James said.

AIB’s branch network in the North had shrunk from 32 to seven, he said, with the company suggesting the reduction had been driven by changing customer behaviour. But Mr James said “if you find a branch that’s open now and then find a staff member, all they can do is point you to a machine, so it is the banks that are driving people away”.

Wilma Stewart, a staff member at Danske Bank, said its network will have declined in size from 104 when she joined the company to 24 by June 6th when another four branches are due to shut. The reduction, she said, was “staggering”.

“What we need to see is the development of a blend of services,” Ms Stewart said, referring to a proposed balance of service provision between online, and branched through third parties, such as post offices.

“Many people are happy to do their banking online but no community or sector of business should be left without blended services,” she said.

In the Republic, the various banks closed 176 branches in the five years to September 2023. As of now, Bank of Ireland and AIB still have about 170 each with PTSB operating just shy of 100 in the wake of its takeover of parts of the former Ulster Bank network.

Tom Ruttledge, from the Bank of Ireland sector, said banks were “withdrawing services from locations because it suits their cost model, not because it suits their customers”.

Older clients, he said, often missed out on advice from staff that might have helped them make better decisions with regard to financial services and products.

Ali Ugur, chief economist and head of prudential regulation at the Banking and Payments Federation Ireland, said he did not believe the decision to close a branch was “purely about a profit and loss decision”.

“Banking is a relationship business and AI is not going to build that relationship for you,” Mr Ugur said.

Nevertheless, he said, the trend is areas like ATM cash withdrawals was clear with substantial declines both in terms of value and volume, while more recent entrants to the retail financial services market were piggybacking on the ATM network without contributing to the costs involved. “We need to recognise the reality of the situation.”

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times