The Financial Services Union is calling on the Government to convene a forum for what it calls an' open and transparent' public debate on the future of banking and financial services on the island.

The FSU represents around 15,000 workers in the financial services sector in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK.

It believes public policy should determine the model of banking that is best suited to meet the needs of society and business.

This, it says, should not be left up to banks and financial institutions to decide.

The FSU has called for a similar forum to be established in Northern Ireland by the Executive there.

The call comes in the wake of a number of significant announcements by banks in recent weeks including the decision by Ulster Bank to gradually withdraw from the market here in the coming years and Bank of Ireland's intention to close 103 branches on the island from September.

It also coincides with voluntary redundancy programmes that have commenced or are about to commence at the two pillar banks, AIB and Bank of Ireland.

Permanent TSB also announced in November that it plans to shed 300 jobs.

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Public trust at low ebb

The FSU says the debate should include all stakeholders, including the banks themselves, customers, staff, management, trade unions, business and employers' groups, and community interests. 

Among the issues it would like to see debated are the lack of public trust in banks, the pace of change in banking - including branch closures and digital risks - SME lending and ethics, among other issues.

Financial services remain among the least trusted sectors of the economy, an FSU report on the future of banking published today concludes, citing figures from a number of sources.

Irish people's trust in financial institutions, at 42%, is the fifth lowest among 26 countries surveyed.

That comes against the backdrop of an industry that's changing rapidly across Europe and the world.

"We do not know what long-term effect that will have on households, farmers and SMEs," the report says.

"Across the Euro area the number of local bank branches fell by 17.5% in the five years between 2015 and 2019. In Ireland, 153 branches (14.9%) closed in the same period."

The report says it is unclear as to whether whistleblower protections for individuals in financial institutions are working adequately. 

"It is likely that the 200 whistleblower complaints (of all types) received in 2019 represents just the tip of the iceberg in an industry that employs more than 120,000 people and where 15% of staff have seen unethical behaviour rewarded. 

"More research is needed to determine whether staff in banks and financial industries have confidence in the protected disclosures process," the report concludes. 

The areas of mortgage and SME lending, as well as the effect of low interest rates on savings and deposits, are driving debate in several European countries at the moment.

Figures from the Central Bank yesterday pointed to the fact that Ireland continues to have the highest mortgage interest rates in the euro zone.

Bank of Ireland and AIB both confirmed recently that they were lowering the threshold at which negative interest rates would be applied to large deposits and signalled that high net worth individuals would be hit, as well as businesses and institutional depositors.

A proactive approach necessary

"A stable society requires a trusted banking system," John O'Connell, Secretary General of the FSU told Morning Ireland.

"Our paper sets out the rationale for a debate on the future of the sector to restore trust in banking and to bring all stakeholders into the process."

Mr O'Connell said the financial sector had been caught in recurrent cycles from the past where the response was largely reactive.

"We think there needs to be a proactive approach and that would be good for banks, regulation, consumers and staff."

He also called for the strengthening of whistleblower protections in order to encourage and support those who call out unethical behaviour.

Commenting on reports about a possible takeover approach from Bank of Ireland to stockbroker Davy, Mr O'Connell said the FSU didn't have any immediate concerns.

Referring to the recent deal between AIB and Goodbody, he said there were protections that could be built in.

"However, it strengthens the argument as to why there should be a debate about the direction of banking," he concluded.