I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter for debate. As we have known for a while, Allied Irish Banks is going through a restructuring programme. For a while, it has flagged the fact that the programme would involve some branch closures. However, the number of branch closures announced on 27 July in a press statement, which was really about the fact that the bank was putting up its variable rates for mortgages, came as a major shock to very many communities. Sixty-seven branches and sub-offices are to close. The counties facing the largest number of closures are Donegal and Limerick. In my area, outside Limerick city, Glin, Foynes, Dromcolliher, Hospital, Doon and Croom are affected. For a number of years, Allied Irish Banks has serviced those communities, both through the old Munster and Leinster Bank and, more recently, under Allied Irish Banks plc. Throughout the bad days of the recent past, the customers in the communities, which are predominantly rural, have remained extremely loyal to Allied Irish Banks.
I understand from having spoken to the Department of Finance during the summer that the Minister is prohibited from getting involved in commercial day-to-day decisions. However, the Government and the Oireachtas in particular are obliged to represent the people who elected them, particularly in respect of decisions made by banks that are essentially being kept open courtesy of the taxpayer.
It has been stated that the closure of a bank branch will not make that much difference. On the day of the announcement, Allied Irish Banks referred to the banks in Stoneybatter and Capel Street, implying that one bank was around the corner from the other. In the area that I represent, a return journey to and from a bank in order to carry out commercial activities may be up to 40 miles. This is in the absence of night safes, automated teller machines and a commercial agreement between Allied Irish Banks and An Post, which has been flagged as the body to provide a banking facility in the future. I understand the Government's predicament and position on this matter but An Post is a semi-State company and Allied Irish Banks has still not concluded an agreement in respect of the individual communities affected.
We do not know whether the post office network will be logistically capable of providing banking facilities or whether postmasters, AIB staff or, most importantly, AIB customers have been negotiated with. As the Minister of State knows, carrying out any kind of commercial activity in rural communities, be it a shop or manufacturing business, is difficult. This includes pensioners who are constantly being told to lodge their payments directly into their banks. AIB is pulling out of tracts of rural Ireland without any regard to geographical impediments or the level of service remaining behind. Communities will be left picking up the pieces with their local post offices.
The manner in which the announcement was made left much to be desired. It did not say much. I was disappointed for local bank staff who were left to deal with the likes of myself and others in the communities. It was announced in the middle of the summer when the Dáil was in recess in the middle of a press release that focused primarily on a mortgage interest hike so that the national media would latch onto that issue and forget about the rural bank network.