A motion calling on the Economy Minister Simon Hamilton to intervene to try and prevent the ongoing closure of rural banks has been passed at the Assembly.
It comes after the summer bombshell from Bank of Ireland that it will close eight branches in Castlereagh, Draperstown, Antrim, Belleek, Castlederg, Newtownards, Maghera and Donegall Square South in Belfast.
Since 2010, 104 bank branches have closed here, leaving 252 branches across Northern Ireland.
Now a motion brought by the SDLP, and amended by Sinn Fein, has been passed.
It records the extreme concern of MLAs at the number of bank branches being closed in rural areas and alarm that large rural areas are without access to a local bank branch.
It adds that it “recognises the limitations of many of the alternatives, such as mobile and internet banking, and the Post Office, particularly given the limitations of broadband and mobile internet provision in rural areas”.
But it continues that the Assembly “believes that the provision of accessible banking is an integral part of social inclusion, with a particular impact on the elderly; notes the negative economic impact bank closures have on small businesses and on future investment opportunities”.
It also calls on the Minister for the Economy to “intervene meaningfully and encourage the banking sector to maintain a strong network of rural bank branches and to safeguard the existing bank branches within these communities from closure2”. It also calls on the Minister to “commit to investing in identifying and addressing the problem of rural areas where no, or no worthwhile, broadband and mobile provision can be received”.
Among those lending their support to the motion was Newry and Armagh DUP MLA William Irwin, who said it was a matter of particular relevance to this constituency, where local towns lost a number of rural banking branches “in a matter of a few months”.
He said: “Tandragee lost the Danske Bank branch, and many customers who were less mobile and, indeed, businesses in the town that enjoyed that accessibility to a banking branch switched to the remaining bank in town, an Ulster Bank, only for it to close a few months later.
“That had a negative impact on Tandragee, with a noted decrease in the number of people stopping there. It has also had a negative knock-on effect on businesses.
“Newtownhamilton lost its only banking branch, as did Markethill, which, in reality, means that, over a very large area, the only physical branch-based banking services are in Newry city and Armagh city. That continues to be a significant issue for businesses and, of course, the general public, who now have to travel much greater distances to do their banking.”
Mr Irwin said he had liaised with various banks and was successful in encouraging Ulster Bank to operate a mobile bank in Tandragee one day a week, which has been of some assistance to local people.
But he added: “It has limited services on board; it is no substitute for a permanent branch in the town. I recall, in the weeks leading up to the closure, holding various meetings with the banking institutions, at which I put forward strong arguments for the retention of services in each of the respective areas.
“However, the banks’ defence of closure was consistently based on the rise of internet banking and the cost of operating a branch versus the financial benefit to the bank.
“It is, in my view, unacceptable that banks feel that they can withdraw a vital service from a town, especially when the general public and businesses have given a bank loyal custom over many years, in many cases, for decades.
“The public and local businesses that I spoke to remain very dissatisfied by the decision of banks in my constituency to withdraw their branch services. Indeed, some of those banks in recent times have made record profits in Northern Ireland.
“That internet banking is rising in popularity is no surprise and, in many respects, it represents a convenient opportunity to check your accounts at any time, day or night, and in any place. However, not everyone is comfortable with this form of technology, and not everyone has access either to 4G mobile, a phone data signal or suitable broadband speed to permit the use of online banking by computer.
“That is an issue for those either without the technology or for those uncomfortable using it. For those in that position in my constituency, it means a significant journey to access branch services elsewhere and, of course, it poses a real problem for the elderly and those without suitable transport.”
Economy Minister Simon Hamilton said Northern Ireland needed a “strong, vibrant banking sector and effective relationships to ensure that our economy and rural communities can continue to grow and prosper”.
“We have a very strong sense of community in Northern Ireland,” he commented.
“Whether or not we like banks, they are part of that community. They have a broader responsibility to their customers in Northern Ireland, which is not always evident from their behaviour.
“I recognise that it will be a challenge, but I encourage our banks to ensure that they take informed decisions that take full account of the likely impact on local and, in particular, rural communities.
“I will do my best to have an open-door relationship with our banks because it is vital that we truly understand each other. That relationship should be mutually beneficial to the needs of the banks and the wider economy and society in Northern Ireland.”
Sinn Féin MLA Cathal Boylan has welcomed support for his party’s amendment on the closure of rural banks.
“This was an important issue calling for equivalence of services for rural dwellers,” said the Newry and Armagh representative. “I welcome the support the Sinn Féin amendment received from members of the DUP, Alliance, the Green Party and PBP.
“We called on the Minister to take action to encourage the banking sector to maintain a strong network of rural bank branches.
“Sinn Féin highlighted the impact bank closure has on rural dwellers who need to bank in-branch, for example, small business, older people or farmers; and also the negative impact in terms of footfall on local businesses, likes shops & cafes, when a bank branch closes.
“We believe banks should be more imaginative and innovative in their solutions and look at shared premises, providing a mobile premises or alternative opening hours which better suit the needs of customers.
“For users of online banking in rural areas suffering from the loss of local bank branches, there are often also limitations in broadband and mobile coverage, making it impossible for them to avail of online banking.
“In such areas which have already lost their branches, customers now have no choice but to travel to a bank for even the simplest transactions.
“It is therefore imperative to address the lack of broadband and mobile coverage in such rural areas to offer these customers the alternative of online banking where it is appropriate. This should go hand in hand with efforts to maintain a strong network of banks.
“It is necessary to address the general disparity in service provision for rural communities and this is something Sinn Féin will continue to highlight at every possible opportunity.”