Hearings reaffirm just how bad mortgage problem is

Contrasting exchanges between committee and executives from Bank of Ireland and Ulster Bank

Richie Boucher, chief executive of Bank of Ireland, arriving at Leinster House. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Richie Boucher, chief executive of Bank of Ireland, arriving at Leinster House. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


The contrast in the nature of the exchanges between the Oireachtas committee on finance and executives from Bank of Ireland on the one hand, and Ulster Bank on the other, was like chalk and cheese.

Several committee members made no secret of their displeasure at the fudging by Bank of Ireland on the breakdown of solutions provided to arrears customers between April and June of this year.

Analysing this data was the reason the committee hearings were convened in the first place. Earlier this year all of the Irish mortgage lenders were told by the Central Bank that they had to provide 20 per cent of their arrears customers with a sustainable solution.

AIB had broken out its proposed remedies for this period when it went before the committee on Tuesday.

Bank of Ireland’s four-man team offered statistics for the first half of the year and for July but not for the second quarter. Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty accused the bank of “playing games” with the committee.

Boucher bristles
The bank’s chief executive Richie Boucher bristled at such suggestions and told the members that, as a publicly quoted company, he could only provide data that had been verified. The statistics they were seeking for the second quarter were not yet available.

Boucher’s more robust demeanour, compared with his AIB counterpart David Duffy on Tuesday, reflects both their different styles and the fact that Bank of Ireland is only 15 per cent owned by the State. AIB is more than 99 per cent controlled by the Government, which can more readily call the shots.

Boucher also made it clear that while Bank of Ireland will do all it can to facilitate agreeable repayment schedules for those mortgage customers in financial distress, it will seek to have every cent repaid in full. However long it takes.

He made the point, not unreasonably, that the tab for any debt forgiveness would have to be met by his shareholders, including the Irish taxpayer. It would also rob the bank of capital to invest in the economy, which supports its business and will aid its return to profitability, he said.

This didn’t wear with the committee members, particularly TDs Joe Higgins and Richard Boyd-Barrett. In their view the banks had gouged unsuspecting customers by offering them crazy loans in the bubble years and they should now be prepared to share the pain, especially as the State has given Bank of Ireland a €4.9 billion bailout.

Ulster Bank’s engagement was rather more cordial. Maybe the four-hour grilling of Boucher had dulled the senses of the committee members.

Stephen Bell, Ulster’s chief risk officer, sat almost bolt upright in his seat offering detailed replies to the questions that were fired his way in a calm, unruffled manner. Very British, really.

In the end, it all just reaffirmed for us that the mortgage arrears problem is as bad as we all thought and it will take years to put right.