Ulster Bank to close 39 branches as hundreds of jobs cut

Ulster Bank Ulster Bank is the third-largest bank in Ireland

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The Northern Ireland Assembly's finance committee is to discuss the closure of 39 Ulster Bank branches across the island of Ireland.

Finance Minister Sammy Wilson has said the news that the RBS-owned bank is to shed hundreds more jobs shows it has a lot of work to do to return to profit.

The new post closures are in addition to 950 job losses announced in January 2012.

In total, 1,800 jobs could be lost by 2016, almost a third of its workforce.

It hopes to achieve this through natural wastage.

The bank is closing up to 39 rural branches across the island of Ireland.

Mr Wilson said he had been given assurances that the number in Northern Ireland is in single figures over a longer period of time.

Closures by the Ulster Bank and others had left many provincial towns without banking services, he said.

"I know that banks are in competition but one of the things I have been suggesting to them is rather than all banks removing branches from provincial towns, why can't they work together to spread them across towns in Northern Ireland - in some cases, that would help," he said.

Ulster Bank said the move was part of its plans to return the loss-making bank to profit by 2016.

The bank has so far not given a breakdown of where these closures will occur.

Ulster Bank said the branches would close by the end of 2014 and in future the bank will concentrate more on urban areas and internet banking.

"We believe that, taking account (of) the 950 reductions announced in early 2012, the remaining decrease in headcount should be met through natural attrition over the remaining course of the strategic plan," a spokesperson said.

"We continue to keep our costs under review."

In January of this year the bank announced it was closing 22 branches and sub-offices on both sides of the border.

At the time, the bank said there would be no additional job losses as a result of that announcement.

Earlier this year, the bank announced it had made losses of more than £1bn in 2012.

The cutbacks are an attempt to move into profitability within three years.

BBC Northern Ireland business correspondent, Julian O'Neill, said news of the cuts came in a presentation to banking analysts and investors, and caught staff unawares.

Ulster Bank currently has 214 branches across the island of Ireland - 135 in the Republic of Ireland and 79 in Northern Ireland.

'Cavalier approach'

It employs 6,000 staff.

Irish finance union, the Irish Bank Officials' Association (IBOA), said the branch cuts were a "bolt from the blue" and criticised Ulster Bank for what it called its "cavalier" approach to staff and customers.

IBOA general secretary Larry Broderick said: "While everyone is aware that Ulster Bank's parent, RBS, is in some disarray at the moment and its commitment to its Irish operation has been the subject of much speculation recently, I sometimes wonder if the senior management in Ulster Bank are deliberately trying to sabotage the bank's future by their cavalier approach to their customers and staff."

In June, the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne raised the possibility of splitting the Ulster Bank into 'good and bad banks'.

He has ordered a review into breaking up the bank's parent body, the RBS.

It will particularly focus on assets in Ulster Bank and UK commercial real estate.

The review will report later in the year and will be conducted by the Treasury with external professional support.

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