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Garda credit union bucks the trend with €150m to lend

THE country's largest credit union is bucking the trend for lending here: it has a staggering €150m to lend.

While 80 credit unions are at risk of collapse, St Raphael's -- the garda credit union in Dublin -- is now the largest non-state-owned lender in the country.

But it is understood many of its 32,000 members are afraid to take out new loans because of uncertainty about the economic recovery.

Its borrowers are serving and retired members of the garda and their immediate relatives.

The credit union, which has €350m in assets and more than €40m in reserves, has set aside €13m -- €3m more than is required -- to meet its bad debts.

St Raphael's and St Paul's, the garda credit union in Cork, have been among the most active creditors in the courts, securing registered and unregistered judgments against borrowers in default.

St Paul's was not in a position to respond late last week to Irish Independent queries about the health of its loan book.

Claire Byrne, the chief executive of St Raphael's, said the 47-year-old Dublin-based lender was the largest non-state-owned financial institution in the country.

"We are over-provided for and have strong fundamentals, that is something that we are very proud of," Ms Byrne said.

She said that the fall off in lending applications by St Raphael's borrowers was "to be expected" and was driven by a lack of consumer confidence, even among public sector workers such as gardai.


"People are being much more cautious than they have ever been and we have witnessed a big increase in people starting to save again," she added.

She had accountancy firm Grant Thornton conduct a review of the credit union's full loan book after the financial crisis took hold.

The review, which has just been completed, shows that the union has issued 14,281 loans, worth more than €168m, to its members. The arrears are €5.17m on total gross loans of over €168m -- or 3.08pc on March 31 of this year.

The credit union has not been entirely buffeted from the effects of the recession, however.

Arrears have increased by 3.7pc since October 2010, prompting Grant Thornton to recommend that the board undertake a monthly review of the entire loan book, especially loans of more than €50,000.

The board has also been asked to to review the top 100 loans where 40pc were found to be in arrears of one week or more.

Ireland's 413 credit unions have assets of more than €14bn and annual income of €140m.

But each credit union is owned and operated individually, placing a strain on smaller operations that could be forced into mergers or collapsed by the Central Bank.

The Central Bank has taken a number of regulatory actions against individual credit unions -- including imposing lending limits -- to protect savings. But the more robust credit unions may petition the regulator to lift the cap on lending.

The Central Bank told the Irish Independent that lending limits could be raised on a case-by-case basis where a credit union could demonstrate improvements.

"The limits that have been put in place are designed to protect members of credit unions, the financial stability of credit unions and the sector overall," a spokesperson said.

Irish Independent