No surprise to see AIB trying to piggyback on GAA’s good name
Discredited financial institutions no longer share the ethos or values of the association
Roscommon footballer Enda Smith pictured the launch of AIB’s four-part miniseries, Behind The Gates at St Audoen’s Gate in Dublin. Photograph: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
The new AIB/GAA campaign, a mini-documentary series which follows the Roscommon team on their odyssey last summer, is a slick and brilliantly filmed glimpse behind the curtains of one of the magical stories of the last summer’s championship.
So why does it feel so hollow and wrong?
For a while now, AIB has been aligning itself to the root values of Irish communities through its brilliantly realised ‘The Toughest’ advertising campaigns, which has successfully sought to elevate the authenticity of soul and effort of the sometimes overlooked club teams across the country.
There was something genuinely haunting about the former Tipperary goalkeeper Brendan Cummins’ tone when he described a gut-wrenching defeat with his local club.
And there is a wonderful 15-minute film of Colm Cooper describing the loneliness of his path back from cruciate injury.
These are works of considerable skill and empathy and they subtly communicate the message that AIB, a financial institution buoyed by a £20 billion rescue package funded by the Irish people, understands the cares and passions of its local tribes.
Now in its third year of sponsoring the All-Ireland senior club football championship, AIB’s slogan is that it is ‘backing club and county’.
The irony is that AIB, like all other pillars of Irish finance, had held that position of integral local involvement before their boards decided that it wasn’t profitable enough.
Because what do we mean when we talk about ‘the banks’?
When it comes to the litany of financial scandals and delirious greed for profit which underlined the policy and motivations of Irish financial pillars over the past two decades, we probably mean the daunting headquarters in central Dublin: vast and shadowy entities, faceless apart from annual appearances by CEOs paid staggering salaries and bonuses for refusing to explain why Irish people have to pay higher variable interest rates than their EU counterparts.
But on a more relevant level, when people think about the banks, it is their local branch that comes to mind. Visit any Irish town and the banks inevitably form a prominent element of the architecture. They are usually the oldest and most prestigious buildings on the main street and lend an air of gravitas to the furniture of the town.
For decades in Ireland, the function of the bank was much like the supermarket, the chemist or anywhere else: your neighbours, your family and your friends worked in the bank. You met people there. The bank was at the epicentre of local commerce and gossip.
There was an understanding that these branches had an overseer, that mythical figure of Irish life and fiction: the bank manager. Always suited in cliché, a habitué of the golf club, a whiskey decanter not far from the desk for those special moments, the bank manager was responsible for running his house and genuinely knew the community.
His judgement (for it was, in those days, inevitably a he) was usually the final verdict on whether people got their loans approved or their overdrafts extended, that first mortgage or indeed, that parcel of land approved for development. Some bank managers were pure accountants; others did good turns behind the scenes and exercised prudent and moral judgement. They were people.
Gradually, though, it became apparent that more and more of the decision making was being centralised, that lending decisions were no longer based on the relationship and local knowledge between the customer and the manager but were being processed remotely and judged according to set criteria through which the customer, the person, was reduced to an application form.
In the times of wild profitability and wanton lending, that helped to speed up the process of generating credit.
Afterwards, when it all fell apart, it made it easier for the banks to chase after people in arrears, people who had lost jobs, people who found it hard to deal with spiralling interest rates; people whose lives were , at least temporarily, in ruin. And there was no one to turn to or reason with. People weren’t dealing with the manager any more. They were dealing with ‘the banks’.
I remember walking into a bank about three years ago to find its staff directing people towards its newly-installed automated machines through which people could conveniently lodge and withdraw cash etc without having to deal with actual people.
Still, there was a long line of people waiting to speak to the two human bank clerks. But it felt like an end-of-days moment as the staff on the floor politely and helpfully talked people through how to use the machines that would one day take their jobs.
Automation has been accepted as an inevitable part of the future (although nobody seems certain as to why it must be inevitable) because it is a more profitable way for companies to do business, be that in production or finance.
During the so-called boom, the smart advice for those with savings or pension funds was to go with the banks; the shares could not fail. The banks were making money like never before.
Until, of course, it became evident that the whole economy was a wilful delusion; a spending spree based on the fantasy that you could build endless semi-detached houses on the edge of every town and there would forever be buyers willing to contract themselves to 30-year mortgages of 280k plus and mendacious interest rates.
It was madness and the bet here is that the people who knew that it was madness were the very people whose opinion nobody sought: the staid, cautious retired small town bank managers of the 1970s, 80s and 90s. When the commentariat sought the opinion of the princes of the ‘soft landing’, they should really have been phoning the guy who ran the bank in Longford or Cobh or Gweedore circa 1983. He would have put them straight.
The point of this is that AIB and Bank of Ireland and Ulster Bank were, for decades, intricately and genuinely linked to the beating heart of every town in Ireland. And they chose to rip themselves out of that socio-economic role. They chose to sever the intensely local understanding between its staff in local towns and the people of those towns.
The best asset any of the Irish financial institutions have is their remaining staff in those provincial branches. But their boards don’t see that.
Even now, almost a decade on from a bail-out foisted on the Irish citizenry, the Irish financial institutions continue to disappoint in ways that are both profound and pathetic. The current tracker scandal is just the latest proof that they are happy to squeeze the little guy for every last miserable penny.
Maybe that’s why it doesn’t sit well when you see one of those institutions buying its way into a spiritual and commercial partnership with the GAA, whose prevailing values are indeed about circulating true life – team spirit, activity, outdoors interaction, joy, disappointment, friendships, local pride – through Irish towns and villages.
The stuff, in other words, that money can’t buy.
Why wouldn’t any financial institution which had lost the trust of its public and had cost the State billions want to align themselves to those qualities? It was a smart bit of business by AIB, maybe the smartest of the last two sorry decades.
But the more relevant question is whether the custodians of the GAA are morally comfortable with aligning themselves right now to any of the Irish financial institutions that have wreaked so much havoc on society and caused what Gay Byrne once described to me as a constant “low-grade stress”; a plaguing, collective worry which has threatened to destroy the very community spirit on which those splendid, sponsored GAA films now shine a light.