Banking on Emerald Isle to deliver a bit o' green

February 18, 2002|By Andrew Ratner

DUBLIN - I inserted my Allfirst bank card in the machine at Allied Irish Banks PLC headquarters, and held my breath.

Having an automated teller machine eat your bank card is a hassle, so having one eat your card 3,000 miles from home must be doubly so, I assumed. But I had to try it: How much of a network were we really? Ireland's largest bank owns mine? Maybe I recalled that in the recesses of my mind, but frankly, how many Allfirst customers realized their bank's owner is across the Atlantic? We'd barely had enough time to get used to it being called Allfirst.

Allied Irish seems to be regarded in Dublin not unlike the big banks often are in Baltimore - a "love-hate relationship," as a banking professor at University College in Dublin referred to it.

It's the biggest bank in Ireland, one of the country's largest employers with 9,000 workers on Irish soil alone, a philanthropic force. But the Irish are also loath to forget the bank's role in the 1980s, when a bad investment it made in the insurance sector led to a public bailout.

They also remain angered by something ominously known as the DIRT tax, which resulted from Allied and other Irish banks in the 1980s and 1990s helping large customers falsify residency claims to evade real estate taxes.

Several years ago, an ex-Allied executive, Anthony L. Spollen, wrote a book, Corporate Fraud: The Danger From Within. It predicted the possibility that a loosely monitored overseas trading operation could undo the institution. He was not writing about the Allfirst situation, but his warning has been cited often this week.

One of Dublin's dailies, the Irish Examiner, delighted Tuesday in running a front-page story about how an Allied Irish branch had mistakenly faxed confidential customer account details to a local business for years - and continued to even after the businessman complained to them.

The story was unrelated to the John Rusnak case, and yet its prominent placement suggested that the paper saw it as another instance of institutional arrogance.

I punched my bank card PIN number into the ATM outside Allied Irish's main office as a double-decker bus whooshed past. To my delight, 10 euros popped out - without an irritating service charge, no less. It's a small world after all.

Andrew Ratner is a business reporter for The Sun who was on temporary assignment in Ireland last week.

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