Unions fear Ulster Bank's withdrawal in Republic will impact Belfast
RIVALS are already circling Ulster Bank's retail and SME assets after the bank said would begin an "orderly and considered" withdrawal from the Republic of Ireland over the coming years following a review of its business.
And unions said they fear the bank's operations in the north will be damaged after the decision by its parent company NatWest.
The third biggest bank in the Republic after Bank of Ireland and AIB with around 1.1 million customers, Ulster Bank has 2,800 staff at 88 branches, and has operated continuously since first opening in Dublin in 1862.
It also has a loan book of more than €20 billion euro (£17.2bn), mostly domestic mortgages.
It is likely it could transfer or sell its loans to another financial institution – either one of the mainstream Irish banks or a private equity house.
Last night Permanent TSB confirmed that it has "ambitious growth plans" and is in early discussions about acquiring some of the Ulster Bank business.
But it said there was no certainty that an acquisition would occur, or the terms of any deal, which would require regulatory approval.
The closure decision - which will be a long-drawn process - came after NatWest said Ulster Bank "could not achieve an acceptable level of sustainable returns" in the Republic.
But its insistence that the bank's business in Northern Ireland will be unaffected has been disputed by the Financial Services Union.
Its general secretary John O'Connell said: “The work of around 600 staff in Belfast predominately involves supporting Ulster Bank activities in the Republic, and these jobs must be secured and protected.
“Ulster Bank and NatWest must provide clarity about the future of these positions, and we are meeting management to seek reassurance.
“We urge the Secretary of State and Chancellor to engage with NatWest to ensure the importance of these jobs to the economy of the greater Belfast area is fully understood.”
And South Belfast SDLP MP Claire Hanna said: "Ulster Bank closing in the Republic of Ireland serves a threat to around 600 backroom staff who administer daily for the southern operation.
"Where state-owned banks are looking to capitalise on this opportunity to buy loan books, I will be making representation to both the London and Dublin governments to ensure they use their strength to protect the workers at the heart of this devastating news."
Ulster Bank's chief executive in the Republic, Jane Howard, said the NatWest decision is "hugely disappointing" but said the bank will "continue to offer a full banking service in our branches, online and through normal channels for existing and new customers for the foreseeable future".