Time for answers as Ulster Bank on stage

Bank chiefs are due to appear at Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

There will be no red carpet and not a single A-list celebrity present, but tomorrow 14 Northern Irish and British politicians will host what promises to be a major event for Ulster Bank customers.

At first glance it may not appear that exciting – it is billed simply as the next evidence gathering session in London of the House of Commons's Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

But the fact the committee is currently holding an inquiry into the banking structure in the North is what should make Ulster Bank customers – past and present – sit up and listen.

Since it launched the inquiry last July, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has heard hours of evidence from key players in the local banking sector, including the Minister of Finance, various industry and trade union leaders.


But tomorrow could prove to be its red carpet day as star witnesses due to appear include the chief executive and head of a bank whose parent, RBS, has been accused of effectively closing "viable" businesses in Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The bank in question, Ulster Bank, has denied any allegations of this nature. But evidence uncovered and publicly referred to by Dr Lawrence Tomlinson, a successful multimillionaire British businessman and key adviser to the UK's business secretary, would suggest otherwise.

Perfect timing
It is perfect timing then for the committee to publicly ask Jim Brown, the chief executive of Ulster Bank, and Ellvena Graham, head of Ulster Bank Northern Ireland, what exactly has been going on.

It is a good bet that the 14-strong committee will be less interested in the bank’s latest flurry of publicity about its sponsorship of the Balmoral Show, one of the largest agricultural shows in the North, and more about how it has been treating its customers and staff.

They will no doubt want to know how Ulster Bank has supported struggling business customers. They might also like to ask the bank about the role of West Register (Northern Ireland) Property Limited, a specialist property asset management company which is owned by Ulster Bank, in helping the local economic recovery.

The bank has moved distressed property assets, such as the Outlet retail centre in Banbridge, from its books to those of West Register.

Latest accounts for West Register show it recorded an operating loss of just over £4.8 million, while it had assets of more than £18 million. It also details revaluation losses on investment property of £5 million.

Ulster Bank’s two representatives will also likely be asked to provide answers to questions that have been a running theme throughout the banking inquiry – not least about IT glitches to which the bank is no stranger.

Justify decisions
Both Bank of Ireland and Danske, who appeared before the committee earlier this month, were asked to justify branch closure decisions, lending policies, and to reconcile the fact they are controlled and owned elsewhere but operate locally.

Des Crowley, chief executive of Bank of Ireland UK, told the committee that the bank wanted to work "with all the parts of Northern Ireland to grow the economy, create jobs and be a good part of the recovery".

He highlighted what the bank believes are “structural issues in the economy” but said it is “a marketplace we see as having potential”.

Danske's chief executive Gerry Mallon was also upbeat about the bank's prospects in the North – he said "we are very active in the market and looking to grow".

Will Ulster Bank be able to match their enthusiasm or commitment to Northern Ireland? Perhaps bank customers may finally get some long-awaited answers.