Ahern in ATM charge 'U-turn'
Justice Minister accused of backtracking as protests erupt over bank fee plan
JUSTICE Minister Dermot Ahern was accused of back-tracking yesterday after a storm of protest blew up over his proposals to charge customers for withdrawing their own money from automated teller machines (ATMs).
Politicians and consumer groups said that he was attempting to penalise ordinary bank customers in order to combat tiger kidnappings.
Mr Ahern had suggested on Thursday that the Government may have to consider making banks charge for money dispensed from ATMs, in order to encourage people to use cards rather than cash.
His suggestion followed a robbery at an AIB branch in Dublin and the abduction of a bank official's wife.
He said that the ATM charge would reduce pressure on banks to hold large amounts of cash.
But following an outcry, the minister appeared to do a U-turn on the issue yesterday, going on RTE radio's 'Drivetime' to stress that he was not proposing taxes or charges on ATMs.
"I wasn't suggesting that more taxes or more charges should be put on people. What I was suggesting was people should be incentivised to use their cards more often in relation to smaller transactions and electronic payments," he said.
Consumers' Association chief Dermott Jewell accused Mr Ahern of backtracking, and said the best way to incentivise people to use less cash would be to scrap the stamp duty on credit, debit and ATM cards.
Ireland is one of the only countries in the world to impose stamp duty on cards. There is annual duty of €30 charged on credit cards, with €5 imposed on cards that double as ATM and debit cards.
Mr Jewell said tiger kidnappings were a matter for banks and their insurers and had nothing to do with how consumers conduct their financial affairs.
But Mr Ahern insisted that Irish people were among the heaviest users of cash and cheques in the European Union.
He said the heavy use of cash imposed massive costs on banks and the State, in terms of security and cash-handling charges.
The Irish Payments Services Organisation said Irish people withdrew an average of €5,500 a year from ATMs.
The average amount withdrawn by consumers in other EU states was €2,000, the minister said.
Enterprise Minister Batt O'Keeffe revealed that the Government had not held any discussion about a controversial ATM cash charge.
"And (it) certainly is not an issue that is live with government ministers," he added.
Fine Gael justice spokesman Alan Shatter strongly criticised the minister's ATM proposals.
Describing this as a "kidnapper's tax", Mr Shatter said Mr Ahern had decided to hand the State over to the crime bosses.
He said the minister's suggestion was a bizarre, startling and grossly insensitive response to the tiger kidnapping.
Labour's Pat Rabbitte claimed that not since Transport Minister Noel Dempsey used the government jet and state car to get to Glenties had a minister shown himself to be so out of touch.
"Just when you think that it is not possible for the members of this Government to show themselves to be any more out of touch with the man or woman in the street, up comes Dermot Ahern with a proposal to penalise ordinary bank customers in order to combat tiger kidnappings," he said.
Mr Ahern's proposed ATM levy also drew an immediate and critical response from the Irish Bank Officials' Association (IBOA).
IBOA general secretary Larry Broderick said it did not agree with the proposed levy -- and was worried about its long-term implications for the already struggling banking sector.
Mr Ahern's comments about a new levy came in the wake of the latest 'tiger' kidnapping in Dublin earlier in the week.
A three-member gang escaped with an estimated €300,000 after holding a bank manager and his wife at gun-point at their Clondalkin home.
Tony Walsh (41) is the manager of an AIB branch -- and his wife, Anne (38), was taken away from the family home at gun-point.
Mr Walsh was given specific instructions to follow to secure his wife's safe release.