Diarmaid Ferriter: Irish banks have abused customers for centuries

History shows that our financial institutions have consistently mistreated the public

‘Banks have been bailed out by the State, yet still they abuse enormous power and accumulate vast profits at our expense.’ File photograph: Getty Images

‘Banks have been bailed out by the State, yet still they abuse enormous power and accumulate vast profits at our expense.’ File photograph: Getty Images

 

Can I swap places with Consumer Affairs Correspondent Conor Pope for one column only? On January 13th I sent a leading Irish bank a short question about a mortgage repayment, via email as required, because they will not deal with queries over the phone. I have still not received a reply.

Almost three weeks after my initial email I emailed this question: “Can someone please explain why the query, sent almost three weeks ago, has not been acknowledged or responded to?”

I received this reply: “Thank you for your recent correspondence. Please note that I have forwarded your request on for escalation to the relevant department within home mortgages. They will be in contact with you in due course. Kindest regards, Home Mortgage Operations.”

That did little to satisfy, so I replied: “All I have been told is that my query, sent three weeks ago, has now been ‘forwarded’ to the ‘relevant department’. What does this mean and why did it take so long? What precisely does ‘in due course’ mean in relation to an answer to my query? Why are mortgage customers not provided with an acknowledgement of their queries within a reasonable timeframe? Why is correspondence from Home Mortgage Operations not signed by an individual? Customers who correspond with you provide their name and details, so why is the same respect and courtesy not reciprocated?

“This is an appalling way to treat customers and demonstrates what can only be considered a contemptuous attitude, made all the worse by the simultaneous airing on various media of adverts proclaiming the bank’s commitment to its customers.”

That, of course, was not replied to. A few days later I was in my local branch of another leading Irish bank, where a sign informs customers that a counter service is now only available between 10am and noon each day. They might as well have just erected a sign saying: “Please do not come into the bank.”

In official bankalese, the decision to refuse to interact with people is called the “reconfiguring” of a branch, so that instead of humans we can deal with “automation walls”.

The horrendous experiences of some victims of the tracker mortgage scandal (and, full disclosure, I am not one of them) have been well aired, as have some of the apologies from some of the bankers, but banks’ contempt appears to be all-pervasive. We are corresponding with computers and call centres, not with people, unless someone has had the misfortune to be christened Home Mortgage Operations by cruel parents.

Giving an earful

Another injustice is that if a customer does eventually get to speak to an individual working in a bank they are likely to give that worker an earful.

But the fault lies with the grossly overpaid executives who remain hidden, only to emerge occasionally when forced by scandal or the requests of an Oireachtas committee to tell us with a straight face, as one chief executive of a bank did last month: “Our culture and reputation can only stand on the foundation of a fair treatment for the customer . . . where we fall short of this standard, it undermines our values and the credibility of the bank.”

It is enough to induce nausea; based on the logic of these words, the culture, reputation and credibility of the banks lie in tatters. They have no moral compasses; some have been bailed out by the State and by extension us customers, yet still they abuse enormous power and accumulate vast profits at our expense.

My well-travelled mortgage has now been with three of the big Irish banks and in my experience they are equally contemptuous, which is precisely why my mortgage is well travelled. The constant rejoinders to “switch providers” therefore ring hollow. Indeed, it is because they know so many are trapped that banks treat Irish customers with such disdain.

How long has this contempt been manifest? As usual I trawled the archives to get an answer and I found it in 1760: a pamphlet, published in Dublin and written by “a gentleman in trade” under the juicy title Observations on, and a Short History of Irish Banks and Bankers.

It referred to “the abuse of the public confidence by bankers” and to “the fatal calamities which have befallen this kingdom by the abuses of private banking . . . is there an evil, which can arise from the monopoly of money, which they have not produced? And how partial the little good which the community has reaped from them!” The public, the writer concluded, “can never rely upon the fidelity of bankers under the present regulations”.

This “gentleman in trade” from the 18th-century authored a timeless tract on the contempt of the bankers. He also did justice to the frustrations of bank customers of yesteryear and today by quoting the British poet James Thomson on the front page of his pamphlet: “Exhausted, sunk, drain’d by ten thousand arts of lawless imposition.”

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