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Andrew Lynch: Has Dermot Ahern completely lost it?

The phenomenon of "tiger raids" is a terrifying prospect for anybody who works in an Irish bank.

Some of the most ruthless criminals in the country are targeting individual employees with access to cash deposits, kidnapping them and holding them hostage until they hand over the money.

The most recent example took place yesterday, when a gang armed with sawn-off shotguns abducted a bank manager's wife and forced her husband to give them €300,000 from the AIB branch where he works.

So, naturally enough, Dermot Ahern's chief response to this crisis is to suggest that we should all start paying much higher fees to take our money out of ATMs.



SQUEEZE

Even by the Minister for Justice's usual standards, this is breathtakingly insensitive.

His basic argument is that higher ATM charges would discourage our dependence on cash, reducing the amounts of money held by banks and making them a less attractive target for gangs.

In reality, as we all know, this would just be a stealth tax by another name -- and yet another way for the bailed-out banks to squeeze another few quid from the long-suffering Irish taxpayer.

Ahern's latest bright idea does not even stand up to basic analysis.

Since almost everybody lucky enough to have a job these days has their wages paid directly into a bank account, using an ATM is a necessity rather than a luxury. In any case, most of the cash in bank branches is stored there for use by their major commercial customers, not the housewife who needs a few quid for weekend groceries.

If banks really want to reduce the amount of money on their premises, there are much simpler ways to do it than fleecing their customers every time they visit a hole in the wall. National Irish Bank, for example, has told its staff not to handle cash withdrawals but to encourage people to use their laser cards instead. In the long term, there are certainly benefits in moving from a cash-based model to a European-style plastic one.

More fundamentally, however, higher ATM charges would be a gross insult to the taxpayers who have already stumped up billions to rescue banks that have so far showed precious little gratitude in return.

Ever since the banking guarantee, customer charges, overdraft fees and mortgage rates have all significantly increased. The 'fat cat' culture, meanwhile, remains -- with some banks buying corporate boxes at Manchester United, golf club memberships for staff and even artwork for the boardroom.

Dermot Ahern's hard-man image has made him the minister who's routinely wheeled out every time the Government wants to warn us there's another new tax on the way. Already he has raised the prospect of water charges, property levies and university fees for next December's Budget. The idea is presumably to frighten people so much that they will feel pathetically grateful when only a few of these threats actually become reality.

Quite apart from being an insult to the public's intelligence, however, Ahern's comments are a clear abdication of his own responsibilities.



TRAUMA

Tiger raids are fundamentally a security issue that require a security response.

A responsible Minister for Justice should be discussing the need for more garda escorts, not exploiting another family trauma in the hope of raising a few more euro to pay for the Government's mistakes.

Sadly, this kind of attitude is all too typical of Ahern's record so far. He has consistently harped on about trivial issues, such as blasphemy, while the growing menace of violent crime continues unchecked.

The Minister for Justice is clearly in love with his tough-guy reputation, but it's the law-abiding taxpayers, rather than the drug lords, who have most to fear from his particular brand of rough justice.


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