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Shane Ross: SFA no small-firm saviour

SHOULD small business take to the streets? As public service unions gear up to damage the economy, small business — the backbone of Ireland — is being bled dry by the banks.

Credit is dead. Healthy outfits are being driven to the wall by the bucketful. Public servants have trade unions to bellyache for them. Small businesses have the seats of their pants, brass neck and hot sweat. Their oxygen is credit. But the oxygen ran out on September 30, 2008.

The big banks have absconded with the supplies of oxygen. They want to keep all the loot for themselves. Never mind, while the unions have Jack O'Connor, David Begg and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, small business has Patricia Callan and the Small Firms Association (SFA) to carry the cudgel.

Jack and David are past masters at giving the Government hell. Similarly, oppressed businesspeople might reasonably expect the SFA to do likewise to the banks.

After all, the SFA has 8,000 members. Hundreds of them are screaming for bankers’ blood. Sadly, the 8,000 members seem more like 8,000 prisoners.

On balance, I would rather be a public servant, represented by Jack and David, than a small businessman led by Patricia. Admittedly, Patricia is easier on the eye than the bearded duo, but that is where my enthusiasm ends. Does any member of the SFA believe for one moment that it will take on the bullies in the banks?

The SFA is hopelessly compromised in its battles with the banks. Its close links with AIB hardly suggest an oncoming challenge, let alone a confrontation.

Patricia should be storming the gates of AIB's fortress out in Dublin's Ballsbridge. She should don her Joan of Arc armour and call her army of 8,000 on to the streets in protest at the bankers’ credit strike.

You will never see the day. Why not? Well, the SFA is a division of the big employers group, Ibec. And who are Ibec's biggest funders? You guessed it. None other than the mighty AIB and the Bank of Ireland.

No doubt the lovely Patricia disregards her parent Ibec's links with AIB when denouncing the banks for starving her members of funds. Denunciation of AIB is not in her armoury.

So what has the SFA been doing to stop the banks persecuting its members? In search of an answer, I googled the SFA and AIB to trace the inevitably frosty relationship between small business victims and the big bankers. Funnily enough, there is little evidence of tension. Far from it. The SFA and AIB are bosom buddies. Enter Kieran Crowley, longtime director of AIB. Kieran is not only a top dog in Ibec and a €170,000-a-year director of AIB, but he did a six-year stint as chairman of the SFA and still sits on its council. No doubt Kieran absents himself from AIB board meetings when funding of small business is discussed. And no doubt he leaves SFA council meetings when all that awkward stuff about banks screwing small business hits the agenda.

Kieran apart, the AIB/SFA links are legion. AIB is a recruiting agent for Patricia's bunch. It makes a kind offer to pay virtually all of the €600 subscription of any first-time member of the SFA. After that, it will pay 50 per cent of the second year's sub. Canny guys, these AIB banker types.

Equally cannily, AIB is sponsoring the SFA's ‘Outstanding Small Business Finalists Award’ for 2010. Equally cannily — in 2006 — AIB sponsored the SFA's Better Business Show. In recent years Eugene Sheehy, the deposed AIB boss, was a star speaker at the SFA's annual luncheon — a gesture akin to asking a fox to attend a chicken's birthday bash. The SFA is firmly captured within the warm embrace of the biggest bank in Ireland. Meanwhile, its members cannot access credit. AIB documents are keen on claiming that “the SFA exclusively represents small enterprises in Ireland”. Not quite true. There is another little organisation called ISME, a truly independent body, not a social partnership junkie, nor a prisoner of Ibec.

ISME has a discount deal with the Bank of Ireland, but otherwise has no close relationship with the very banks which are crucifying its members. A far better bet for a small business.