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Credit unions must be put on sound footing

The worldwide credit union movement has done valuable work everywhere in introducing people on middle and lower incomes to the art of managing their finances.

But it holds an exceptional place in Ireland owing to its standing in the community and its omnipresence, with a total of 408 unions across the country.

In recent times, many of its managements have found themselves in greater or lesser degrees of difficulty.

In this, of course, they resemble the boards of much bigger and more imposing institutions.

Sadly, too, the origins of at least some of the difficulties were very similar.

One was the temptations placed in everybody's way by the property boom. Another was the virtual absence of regulation. In this, the guilt did not belong exclusively to the authorities. The credit unions resisted regulation, largely in the mistaken belief that it was unnecessary.

Now the whirlwind is being reaped -- dramatically in the case of the Newbridge Credit Union, the third biggest in the country. The Central Bank has appointed John Charleton of Ernst and Young to manage the institution -- at €423 per hour.

This is the rate for the job, so there is no point in challenging it. More useful is to hope that Mr Charleton completes his work quickly and that few if any similar cases arise. Shock treatment is all very well in its way, but the fundamental question is whether the movement as a whole can be restored to sound health in a reasonable timescale.

For credit union members, success is vital. The Government stands ready to inject €250m into the system. This relatively small sum could be more than enough to fund a programme of rationalisation. The price, however, will be high: essentially a series of mergers which could reduce the number of unions from 408 to as little as 180.

In the meantime, many borrowers will have to endure a very strict regime. Almost 300 unions have had credit restrictions imposed on them. These can be as tight as €100,000 per month overall, or €5,000 for an individual borrower.

The risks are obvious, especially the risk that people without access to money at low rates of interest will resort to moneylenders and soon find themselves their prisoners instead of their beneficiaries. That can happen all too easily, even when borrowers have not experienced a severe problem like sudden unemployment or a family crisis.

For this and other reasons, it is important that the process of repairing the credit unions should be completed without delay -- preferably this year. Luckily, that will be easier than somewhat similar repairs on a vastly greater scale, the national finances. But the wellbeing of a great many people depends on it.

Irish Independent