Cowen claims he was not warned about bank job cuts
Union wants 'third force' set up
TAOISEACH Brian Cowen and Tanaiste Mary Coughlan dodged questions yesterday about how long they had been aware that Bank of Scotland Ireland (BoSI) was planning widespread job cuts.
Both said they had only been "officially" notified on Tuesday about the 750 job cuts at Halifax, the retail arm of BoSI, but would not be drawn on whether they had been aware of any previous plans by the bank.
Halifax is to close 44 of its branches, only four years after they were opened, as well as a specialist finance unit in Dublin and a customer service centre in Dundalk.
Ms Coughlan said BoSI, which is holding on to 850 jobs in commercial and corporate banking, had been in discussions with the Department of Finance to see what could be done to sustain jobs.
But Labour leader Eamon Gilmore said he thought the Government had been in close contact with BoSI about the creation of a "third force" in the banking sector.
And UNITE said it would fight the bank's job cuts with industrial action if necessary. It called for Halifax to be made part of a third bank, an alternative to the 'big two' of AIB and Bank of Ireland -- which Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny has described as a "cosy cartel".
ISME, the small business organisation, also called on the Government to speed up the establishment of a third bank.
"The withdrawal of Halifax from the retail banking sector is an ominous warning that other foreign-owned banks may follow suit, reducing both retail and commercial lending, impacting negatively on the already meagre competition in the marketplace," ISME chief executive Mark Fielding said.
It is understood BoSI went to the Department of Finance asking to be included in the mooted merger between EBS and Irish Nationwide.
It is believed the bank was then directed to enter talks with Irish Life and Permanent, which was looking to enter its Permanent TSB subsidiary into the third bank at a later date.
BoSI last year said it was undertaking a strategic review of its operations and the Department of Finance asked it to outline the effects any changes would have on the workforce.
"I would have been notified under the Redundancy Act because of the fact there would be collectively redundancies," said Ms Coughlan as she welcomed 90 new jobs at the '3' mobile phone company.
"The Department of Finance would have been in consultation with the banking sector over a long period of time.
"This specific issue on exactly how many jobs would be lost was only notified to me under the context of the Redundancy Act which would have been (Tuesday) evening," she said.
Mr Gilmore said he found the Taoiseach's claim that he only officially found out on Tuesday "incredible".
"Even if it had never thought of closing its branch network, one would think somebody in Government -- in a year when nothing was being discussed but banking business -- would have met and talked with what was a significant player in the banking industry," Mr Gilmore said.
Mr Cowen said the Government was officially notified of the job losses on Tuesday, as per the Redundancy Act.
He said mortgages and accounts held by customers at Halifax would be unchanged. Anyone who has trouble with their accounts or loans should contact the bank, he added.
Socialist Party MEP Joe Higgins called for Halifax to be taken into public ownership to safeguard the 750 jobs.