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Central Bank to ensure Ulster Bank customers are treated fairly, as it moves to pull out of Ireland

The bank is already in discussions with PTSB over the sale of Irish assets.

Image: PA Images

Updated Feb 19th 2021, 7:22 PM

THE CENTRAL BANK has said that they will ensure Ulster Bank customers are treated fairly, after the bank announced that they would be implementing a “phased withdrawl” from markets within the Republic of Ireland.

The move came after a strategic review from its parent company Natwest. It has over one million customers, along with 2,800 staff and 88 branches across the country. 

Ulster Bank said this morning that the move won’t mean an immediate change for customers, with any changes arising over the next few years.

In a statement, the Central Bank has said that their priority when supervising the withdrawl, will be to ensure that all customers are treated fairly and that they continue to comply with all banking regulations.

“The Central Bank has made clear to the management of Ulster Bank that it expects a customer-focused approach to be taken in all aspects of its business throughout the period of change and that it ensures that customers understand what this morning’s announcement means for them,” said a spokesperson for the Central Bank.

Ulster Bank said it has agreed a memorandum of understanding with AIB for the sale of a €4 billion portfolio of performing commercial loans, and the transfer of staff related to that loan book. 

It is also in early discussions with PTSB about their potential interest in buying a number of assets, liabilities and operations. The bank said its preference in discussions is to do business with other parties that can provide full banking services to the Irish market.

The confirmation will come as a significant blow to staff, who had called on government to step in to prevent the closure. It’s understood staff are dismayed to have first heard of the closure through the media rather than an official announcement. 

It’s also understood that workers’ representatives had repeatedly asked for a copy of the terms of reference for Natwest’s strategic review of Ulster Bank’s operations in Ireland but were rebuffed.

Ulster Bank CEO Jane Howard said: “The decision by NatWest to withdraw from this market is hugely disappointing and today will be a difficult and worrying time for our colleagues across the Bank.  It may also lead to customer questions and concerns as to how this decision may impact them and their day-to-day banking needs.

I want to be clear that there will be no change for customers today, changes will happen over the coming years.  Ulster 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. Customers do not need to take any action as a consequence of this announcement. We will communicate with customers in a timely manner over the coming weeks and months.

Howard added that the bank would consult with unions over the best way to manage an “orderly withdrawal” in the coming years.

She added there will be no compulsory departures from the bank this year. 

Speaking to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Howard reiterated that that it’ll be “business as usual” for the moment with customers not required to take any action now. 

“What’s really important for today is there is no change right now, we’re continuing to offer a banking service, and no branches will be closing this year,” she said.

“(Customers) don’t need to take any action and we’ll be starting to communicate with our customers today.”

She said that a priority going forward will be to minimise job losses and that’ll be considered in any negotiations on jobs related to loan books. 

In a statement, PTSB said it has “ambitious plans” to grow its position in the Irish market and confirmed it was in discussions with Natwest.

Its CEO Eamonn Crowley said: “We are in discussions with NatWest in relation to acquiring certain elements of the Ulster Bank Retail and SME Business to provide continuity of service for customers and to strengthen our ability to provide choice and competition in the market generally.”

Speaking to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Financial Services Union general secretary John O’Connell said this decision would affect 2,800 staff in the Republic of Ireland and a further 600 in Belfast.

“The focus must be on the protection of jobs,” he said. “Jobs must be a top priority for everybody. For Natwest, for those interested in acquiring loans and for the minister.”

In a further statement from the union, it expressed its “deep disappointment” at the decision. 

O’Connell said: “The Minister for Finance has a vital role to play now and needs to get all key stakeholders around the table to discuss and agree the response to this situation. In approaching this process, we will encourage constructive solutions so long as they provide the maximum protection for customers, staff and the branch structure.

“Our position is clear: the maximum number of jobs must be protected, staff must have the option of transferring with the work, and all service agreements must be honoured and transferred. There must be no compulsory redundancies: any proposal for a voluntary redundancy scheme must be agreed with the union… Equally, there can be no role for vulture funds – they can never be a part of the solution.”

Political reaction

In a statement this morning, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said it was a “difficult day” from an Irish banking perspective and for Ulster Bank staff. 

He said: “I welcome the reference made this morning to the two other Irish banks, PTSB and AIB, who are engaging with NatWest regarding the future of Ulster Bank’s SME, mortgage, retail and commercial loan books, as well as the current and deposit accounts held by the Bank.

“While this is positive news and indicates the potential further development of already well established Irish banks, there is still much work to be done over the coming months.”

Donohoe said that neither he nor the government had any role in commercial decisions such as these.

“Reassurance is also given to customers of Ulster Bank that robust consumer protections are in place in the event of the bank withdrawing from the Irish market, including the Central Bank’s codes of conduct and that the terms of any contract currently in place with Ulster Bank remains in place into the future,” he added.

Speaking yesterday, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the potential withdrawal of the bank was a “matter of real concern” for the Government.

He said Donohoe was assessing all options to try to minimise any job losses and reduce the negative impact it could have on competition in the sector.

He expressed concern about the effect on staff and customers of media speculation about the future of the bank.

Varadkar told the Dáil that if it closed in Ireland all deposits and savings would be “fully protected”.

Also speaking to Morning Ireland, Sinn Féin’s finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty said the Irish government needs to ensure customers and jobs are protected.

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“This is where there’s a very clear role for the Minister for Finance,” Doherty said. He said as a stakeholder in PTSB, the government help “beef up” this bank to make it a major player on the Irish market. 

“We do need increased competition,” he said, adding that higher interest rates could arise with a lack of competition. 

Doherty said all the banks operating here should enter discussions with Ulster Bank. 

“The crucial thing is we need to make sure the mortgage book is not sold to vulture funds,” he said. “People shouldn’t move their tracker rate mortgage to another bank. If it moves as part of a sale it’s secure.”

In a statement, Labour’s finance spokesperson Ged Nash said the exit was a “hammer blow for staff and customers”. 

“My immediate thoughts and concerns are with the bank’s dedicated staff whose future is uncertain,” Nash said. “Any sale or potential merger must respect the right of staff to have their existing terms and conditions transferred with them and compulsory redundancies should be off the table.

What we need to avoid is the piecemeal dismantling of the bank and it’s operations by vulture funds and other Irish banks which will damage any effort to create a real third force. It is incumbent on the government and the Minister for Finance to drive such an outcome rather than acting as commentators.
The bank and its assets are now vulnerable and any fire sale of assets to vulture funds must be categorically ruled out. 

 

Co-leader of the Social Democrats, Dublin North-West TD Róisín Shortall said the decision would have “grave and serious implications” for customers and employees of Ulster Bank.

“We need to ensure there is a sustainable banking sector in Ireland. The development of a third banking force, which can compete with Bank of Ireland and AIB, must be a priority for the Government,” Shortall said in a statement.
 
“There is a need for a banking forum, which would involve all stakeholders, to look at all aspects of banking policy in Ireland.”

With reporting from Ian Curran, PA, Tadgh McNally

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Sean Murray

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