Really, it is not so much a matter of Whatever Happened the Banks, so much as whatever happened the banks? The first question is asked by boring people in the pub who have read all the disaster books and will explain the whole banking collapse to you if you stand still long enough.
But then there is a larger grouping: quieter, frequently older and yet more furious. This is the group which is asking: whatever happened the banks? These are my people: we live in the lower case.
We’re unfashionable, often technologically ignorant and our schedules allow us to go to our local branch of the bank during the day. And our local branch of the bank couldn’t think less of us if we had come to rob it. In fact it would think a whole lot more of us if we came to hold up the bank with sawn-off shotguns.
The banks have spent large sums on preventing bank robbers swanning in and out of the premises at will. They have installed a double-door security system, they’ve thought that much about them.
Your customer, on the other hand, is regarded as a nuisance and strongly discouraged. Some time ago, at a secret meeting, the banks declared war on us.
Inside your modern bank nowadays is a cavernous space with nothing in it but a couple of machines, perhaps a television and a person whose job it is to wrangle the customers into submission by asking you what you want to do. Then they tell you that you can do it online.
Then you tell them that you don’t want to do it online. Or that you don’t know how to do it online. Or that you have concerns about security online.
Then they direct you to the cashier section – once the heart of any bank. There is one cashier. There is a queue. You queue. That is , if everything goes well.
A friend of mine rebelled. He was in a city-centre branch at lunchtime, 14 people were in the queue and one cashier’s hatch was open. He refused to tell the man who was trying to break up the queue what his business was. His business was private.
“I had a bit of a Larry David moment,” he says. He rehearsed the last couple of years of bank history in this country and told the bank employee that, as things had turned out, he would have been better putting his money in the attic.
“You know how it is in these situations,” he says modestly. “ You become a bit of a folk hero.” The other 13 people in the queue started to talk about how that member of the bank staff was “here every lunchtime” . Because the banks want you at home, doing all their clerical work for them online. It’s simple really.
I know the name of the man with the last old-fashioned bank book in Dún Laoghaire. The bank has tried for years to get it off him but he won’t surrender it – and this man is a bit of a computer whiz and could do online banking if he wished.
Still, the screws continue to tighten on your inconvenient live customer who is, as we all know, a loser.
A local businesswoman ran down to open an account in a local bank. She had a cheque for €5,000 with her and all her documentation. “A lady with a clipboard gave me someone’s card and said we could make an appointment for Thursday.” This was Tuesday. Thursday is this businesswoman’s busiest day. She went elsewhere.
Or take bank transfers as one mad and exotic example. Bank Of Ireland won’t do them – since October 2012, the bank’s head office said in an official statement. The statement, which was kindly and swiftly issued at my request, said Bank of Ireland is “committed to communities nationwide” and staying in them when other banks leave.
All I wanted to do was send a small sum to a German company. “Oh we don’t do bank transfers,” said the customer wrangler, who never did volunteer his name. “Under €3,000. You can do that online.”
I left the bank. Then I went back into the bank. What about other banks? I asked. Surely they do bank transfers. The customer wrangler said he didn’t know.
A colleague has a similar experience in Galway. “I hadn’t been in a bank for ages,” she said – she is not a member of the Resistance. She owed someone €500 and her bank told her that it was “ not possible to do a bank transfer to another bank. You have to do that online.”
My colleague had no problem with that. But she was required to register her mobile phone number online. It was going to take five working days for the activation code for the mobile phone to be issued. It was then going to take two working days for the transfer itself to be cleared.
In the end my colleague handed the woman to whom she owed money a cheque. She asked the customer wrangler what happened with older customers, or in areas of the country where there is no broadband coverage.
It’s like this: the taxpayer bailed out the banks. In return the banks’ live customers are being hunted down like dogs. All we are saying is – give peace a chance.