British banking group NatWest has declined to comment on reports tonight that its board will make a decision on Thursday evening on a proposal to wind down Ulster Bank's operations in the Republic of Ireland. 

The Financial Services Union (FSU) has described the Irish Times report as "extremely worrying". 

"The FSU has contacted Ulster Bank and the Minister for Finance to demand clarification and answers," said John O'Connell, FSU General Secretary. 

"This is a very stressful time for staff and customers. It is simply not good enough for staff to find out through the media that NatWest is winding down Ulster Bank operations in the Republic of Ireland." 

Mr O'Connell added that if Ulster Bank is to exit the Irish market, any solution must involve the maximum protection for customers, staff jobs and the branch structure. 

A spokesperson for Ulster Bank also declined to comment on the report. 

NatWest has been conducting a strategic review of Ulster Bank's Republic of Ireland operations since September.

It is due to report its annual results for 2020 on Friday morning and the expectation is that it will provide an update at that time on the review amid growing speculation about its intentions. 

Ulster Bank has 1.1 million customers here, along with 2,800 staff and operates 88 branches. 

It has operated in the Republic of Ireland for 160 years and has €20.5bn in loans in the Irish market, so any decision to exit would have significant implications. 

The bank has been reviewing its operations because it has struggled to perform in recent years. 

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The Minister for Finance said recently that the consequences of Ulster Bank withdrawing from the market here would be "very serious" for the economy, employment and credit. 

Ged Nash, Labour's spokesperson on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, said that if Ulster Bank exits the Irish market the most immediate and devastating impact will be on its 2,800 staff and the bank's customers. 

"Any exit would also most likely result in a growing dominance of the AIB/Bank of Ireland duopoly meaning less competition and choice in an already expensive market for customers," Ged Nash said in a statement. 
 
"The potential for loans to simply be sold off to the highest bidder is also bad news for customers," he stated. 

"I am really concerned that so many good jobs could be lost in the Irish banking sector and the government simply cannot stand idly by," Mr Nash said.

"Any exit being considered should see the maximum number of jobs saved and transfer of undertakings (TUPE) laws should apply in any sale of the bank or merger to protect pay and terms and conditions," he added.

Mr Nash called for political intervention by Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe to work towards the delivery of a real "third force" in Irish banking using the State-owned Permanent TSB to develop real competition to Bank of Ireland and AIB.

"Government must take a hands-on approach. The Minister for Finance has a pivotal role in this process as it reaches the end-game," he said.