Friday 24 November 2017

Ulster Bank bosses fiddle as reputation goes up in flames

'LIONS ledby donkeys' was a popular description of the British infantry during World War One as they slogged through the mud and barbed wire of Flanders.

Today, it seems like a description of the long-suffering staff of Ulster Bank who have toiled hard to look after customers while the top brass stay well behind enemy lines and turn a bad mistake into a calamity.

The bank's leaders, here and in the UK, have destroyed the reputation of one of the few banks that could still hold its head high despite everything that happened over the past few years. This need not have happened, even after the bank's computer systems suffered a meltdown.

Everybody understands a computer glitch. Customers here showed themselves to be reasonable as they waited in queues and joked with staff who gave up their weekends to help out.

The initial mistake was never an issue, the problem arose with the cackhanded response which saw the bank repeatedly set deadlines and then break them.

This series of broken promises, accompanied by invisible leadership and a complete dearth of information about the causes of the problem, were enough to turn the bank into a long-running joke.

Ulster Bank has been unforgivably vague about the reasons for the Irish delays. Guff about two currencies and a cobbled-together computer system since the merger with First Active just won't cut the mustard.

Yesterday, when the bank's officials appeared before a Dail committee to try to explain the fiasco, it quickly became apparent that even at this late stage, the bank is not taking IT seriously. Questions on the technology meltdown were repeatedly referred to a technical expert who will appear before the committee today.

More than three weeks into the meltdown, it's still amateur hour and the senior staff don't know enough about what is happening to answer questions from a few TDs and senators.

One of the most fascinating things to come out of yesterday's questions, following questioning from Labour TD and barrister Alex White, was the Central Bank's revelation that a bank cannot be fined more than €5m for any offence.

That's nothing more than a parking ticket for a bank and goes a long way to explaining why things just keep going wrong. The Central Bank wants to double the amount but there is no clear reason why we need any sort of limit at all.

Irish Sea

It's enough to make one feel sorry for poor Bob Diamond. Had Barclays been operating this side of the Irish Sea, Barclays Bank would only have had to shell out about 1.3pc of the fine slapped on Barclays by the US and UK regulators.

The really sad thing is that he would also probably still have his job and get the all clear from the Central Bank to continue running Barclays for as long as he wanted to.

The Barclays debacle shows that banks need constant scrutiny and should never be trusted. The Ulster Bank debacle, where staff are now being subjected to regular abuse, shows us that here in Ireland the wrong people usually end up paying for mistakes made higher up the chain.

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