Change in banking will impact on community hubs
The decision by the Bank of Ireland to close 103 branches, north and south, is both a reflection of our changing society and a trigger for the further transformation of social and economic life across the country.
With Ulster Bank planning to close its entire business in the Republic and other banks withdrawing from towns and villages on both sides of the border, high street banks are rapidly disappearing from the high street.
The reason for the closures is a combination of financial viability and what Bank of Ireland calls “a sustained decline” in branch usage by customers. This decline has been massively accelerated by restrictions to combat the coronavirus.
In that context, the closure of bank branches makes economic sense. But for the social and business life of many communities, it creates huge problems.
Those without online access to banks are often the elderly for whom the closure of the local bank creates significant difficulties. For small and medium sized businesses which handle cash, closure raises the issue of how to deposit money quickly and safely.
Bank of Ireland has agreed a deal to allow its customers to carry out some over-the-counter transactions in post offices. Many banks in the north also have this arrangement. But the long term future of the post office system, north and south, is not guaranteed.
In recent years there has been a sustained policy of closing post offices, mainly in rural areas. In the Republic, An Post claims that despite the closures, 95 per cent of people will be within 15 kilometres of a post office. For an elderly person who cannot drive, 15 kilometres is a long journey.
The continued erosion of banks from many high streets across Ireland represents more than mere inconvenience. It removes yet another hub from the social and economic fabric of many towns where pubs, church influence and, in the Republic, Garda stations are in decline.
In the post-pandemic world, the guaranteed retention of post offices would help to restore some of the lifeblood of local communities. Only a commitment, north and south, to the provision of accessible post office services for all will help to offset the adverse impact of what is likely to be more bank closures in the years ahead.