It's unconscionable, right? Completely unfathomable?

That Ireland’s third largest retail bank could just shut up shop, close its branches, lay-off its staff and close.

Yet, according to a report by the Irish Times on Thursday, that is among the options being considered by NatWest, the UK based owner of Ulster Bank, as part of a strategic review of its Irish operations.

If it were to happen it would of course be an orderly shutdown, taking place over six years, the article stated.

But staff and the Financial Services Union that represents them were furious when the news broke.

Having spent recent weeks engaged in negotiations in good faith with the bank’s management over an ongoing redundancy programme that will see 266 of the bank’s 2,800 staff leave to reduce future costs, they understandably felt betrayed at the thought they had not been told the whole truth.

But as angry as they may have been, they surely could not have been massively surprised.

Seasoned banking industry watchers will recall several occasions in the last decade when it was rumoured that Ulster Bank was planning an exit - although in each case, the suggestion had proven incorrect.

Having been bailed out by then parent group Royal Bank of Scotland (underpinned by the UK government) to the tune of £15 billion in the wake of the financial crash, Ulster Bank has had a significant mountain to climb before reaching the summit of profitability.

Dragged down by the cost of non-performing loans and restructuring in a badly damaged economy, it took six years for the institution to return to profit after the banking collapse hit in 2008.

But even since then, its profits have continued to be weighed down by its relatively small size in a relatively small market, the low interest rate environment, bailout repayments to its now parent NatWest, its regulatory burden, the cost of putting right its past wrongs and weak credit demand.

It has assertively and aggressively taken action - cutting staff, selling off books of non-preforming loans, lowering its branch network to the current 88 and reducing costs in other areas where it can.

In 2015, the Republic of Ireland operations were divorced from the bank’s presence in Northern Ireland, which is reportedly not being considered for closure.

Nevertheless, at 97% its cost income ratio is way above its competitors and remains stubbornly high.

And that, combined with the arrival of a new CEO at NatWest and the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, has quite likely focused minds further.

So is it seriously considering exiting the Republic of Ireland?

A merger is another possibility, though. Ever since the banking collapse a decade ago, there has been ongoing talk of the need to build a third pillar in Irish banking to offer stronger competition to AIB and Bank of Ireland

NatWest has said its strategy to grow the bank's business here "organically and safely" remains unchanged.

But it has also said that as it evaluates the impact of Covid-19 and the challenges to the economy, it is reviewing its strategy appropriately and responsibly.

It is noteworthy, therefore, that while it is not confirming that a complete closure is one of the options on the table, equally it is not saying it is not an option.

Nonetheless, analysts say reports of a possible exit are unexpected at this time.

"The speculation comes as a surprise to us given that Natwest’s strategic focus has been on resolving Natwest markets and, as with all banks, latterly with COVID-19," wrote Davy banking analysts, Stephen Lyons and Diarmaid Sheridan in a research note.

"A wind-down does look an extreme option given UB’s size and the speculation could be tactical on Natwest’s part to achieve other objectives. Also, the fact that PTSB hasn’t been approached to weigh up any merger benefits indicates how early stage the strategic review likely is."

A merger is another possibility, though.

Ever since the banking collapse a decade ago, there has been ongoing talk of the need to build a third pillar in Irish banking to offer stronger competition to AIB and Bank of Ireland.

But despite speculation about how Ulster Bank, Permanent TSB and KBC Bank Ireland could join forces, it has never come about, or even been explored as far as we know.

To do it would take a large injection of cash, which isn’t there, experts say.

"We have long viewed further consolidation in the Irish banking sector as desirable given the sector’s comparably small size and lower level of returns and focused on the three smaller players - PTSB, KBC and UB - given the significant market shares of the two pillar banks," the Davy analysts said.

"However, we have been sceptical to date of the willingness of each of the banks to engage in any merger and have been mindful of integration and political considerations."

A much larger outside player could, notionally, come in to sweep up the Ulster Bank assets and branch network, if they were for sale.

At European level there is a push towards consolidation in the banking market, as the ECB wants fewer small and vulnerable banks into the future and more large resilient lenders.

Despite its challenges, Ulster Bank does have some attractive features, including €22 billion of deposits. It is the joint third largest mortgage lender and a 20% share of the small business lending market.

But industry insiders see it as highly unlikely, with one expert questioning why any bank would want to set up here following the "kicking around" the industry has had in recent years from the regulator, politicians and the media.

Indeed in recent years the only new entrants into the mainstream banking market in Ireland have been digital banks, who aren’t interested in traditional/legacy models built around costly branch networks.

What's clear though is that the genie is now out of the bottle. Staff are worried, fearing for the future of their jobs in an already difficult employment climate

From Ulster Bank’s point of view it is also hardly a great time to be selling assets, with a jump in bad loans expected over the coming months and huge economic uncertainty ahead with the pandemic and Brexit.

So it may be that the review, when complete, leads to little or no change at all.

"Of course, we may just end up with the status quo/business as usual and we note that only last week Ulster Bank announced it was cutting 266 of its 2,800 workforce and just appointed a new chairman (you’d think he would have checked what he was getting himself into?)," wrote analysts Eamonn Hughes and Barry Egan at stockbroker Goodbody.

"But irrespective of whatever decision is taken by the Natwest CEO, it is likely to generate some speculation in the short term about possible structural change in the Irish marketplace..."

What’s clear though is that the genie is now out of the bottle.

Staff are worried, fearing for the future of their jobs in an already difficult employment climate.

Customers will be concerned too, wondering what exactly it might mean for their services and their loans if Ulster Bank were to quit the Republic of Ireland.

Prospective clients will also be looking on with caution, wondering whether it is worth getting involved in a bank whose future here may be uncertain.

Politically, the loss of dozens of branches around rural parts of Ireland would be hugely controversial and the loss of competition a big setback to the economy.

So NatWest will now have to move quickly - either by making an unpalatable decision if indeed it is an option, or by putting minds at rest.