Ulster Bank chief executive Jane Howard’s note to staff describing as “speculative” reports that NatWest is considering closing 88 branches in the Republic will be greeted with a measure of relief.
While she said Ulster Bank’s UK parent, NatWest, was still following a strategy to grow operations here, she also said that “all strategic options” remained on the table. Two of those options, according to reports on Thursday, involve either winding down Ulster Bank’s Republic of Ireland operations or looking at the possibility of merging with another lender.
In either case, Ulster Bank’s 2,800 staff and its thousands of personal and corporate customers will be watching developments closely.
It is a particularly worrying time for consumers who would be forced to make alternative arrangements. They already face some of the highest banking costs for mortgages and loans in Europe and a further loss of competition would increase the dominance of AIB and Bank of Ireland in the market.
For now, though, the departure of Ulster Bank from the Irish market is far from certain. As that situation develops, it might be more useful to focus on the Central Bank of Ireland’s warning earlier this year that a lack of consumer-focused culture — cited as a factor in the tracker mortgage scandal — is still prevalent in Irish retail banks. It’s time to set that right and ensure that the consumer is at the centre of our banks’ structures and processes.