The crass truth of the cashless ploy

An Cailín Rua

U TURN AIB may have reversed its decision to go cashless in 70 branches, but the attempt still signals the cashless society to come.

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

It was looking like a new era for banking in Ireland was beckoning, as AIB, Ireland’s largest bank, announced plans to remove all cash, ATM and cheque services from 70 of its 170 branches, to focus instead on financial planning, account opening, mortgages, loans, savings and investments.
The news provoked a visceral reaction, with even the Taoiseach – without a hint of irony – invoking the social contract while urging AIB to reconsider its decision. Surprisingly, within 24 hours, the bank reversed the decision, but there is still a sense of inevitability about the onset of a predominantly cashless society.
While this might not sound overly alarming to those of us wedded to debit cards and Revolut accounts, it has several major implications, both positive and negative.
Going cashless is in theory more secure and safe for businesses, ensuring they can avoid holding large amounts of cash on the premises. Being able to move money electronically is more convenient and cheaper (though our quarterly bank fees would suggest otherwise). Digital transactions reduce crime and tax evasion.
But handling cash also teaches us the value of it, particularly when we are just starting out.
Worse, eradicating cash is exclusionary. What about those who cannot access a bank account, perhaps because they are homeless or undocumented? What about those who are not digitally literate, or cannot access digital infrastructure to do their banking? What about the inconvenience to small, local businesses – the lifeblood of our wilting communities?
AIB collaborated with Women’s Aid as recently as 2019 to highlight financial abuse. The vital importance of cash to victims of domestic violence or indeed elder abuse must not have been a consideration in their initial decision.
Most chillingly however, a cashless society would result in a complete loss of privacy around how we spend the money we work to earn.
We are all familiar with the dim view taken by banks of the indulgence in takeaway coffees when applying for mortgages. When every single cent is subject to scrutiny, our private data is open to mega-corporations to use to make even more money from us. Anyone with a smartphone or social-media account already routinely hands over an enormous amount of that information, but operating in a cashless society would potentially allow data on every single financial transaction we make – including our identity, location, means and transaction details – to be shared with any number of organisations. Thanks, but no thanks.  
The GAA will be relieved. Had the AIB’s plans proceeded, it would have raised serious ethical questions for the sports organisation, coming as it did off the back of a recent Irish Times article by Malachy Clerkin suggesting that the sponsorship of the GAA football championships by a bank responsible for inflicting massive hardship and trauma on communities over the past decade amounted to sportswashing.
Ballinamore Seán O’Heslin’s GAA Club in Leitrim also issued an admirably strong statement, calling out AIB and highlighting the hypocrisy of the bank’s claim to community values via its GAA sponsorship. “Let’s be clear,” the statement said, “this is not a cost-saving exercise … it is profit maximisation by an organisation that was bailed out by the Government using funds generated by the very communities they are now deserting.”
And that’s the nub of it, isn’t it? While there is a strong, rational and even sociological argument for moving cash services to post offices (despite a chronic lack of ATMs), the anger around this decision, while ostensibly about the practicalities, was rooted far more in a sense of injustice and disrespect.
Entire communities were decimated due in no small part to the banks, with little recourse, and the sacrifices made in shouldering a heavy economic and social burden in the aftermath should have entitled those communities to just a little bit of respect.
And politically, the timing was all wrong, showing an arrogant disregard for the Government’s own retail-banking review, due later this year.
However, there is little room for courtesy or sentimentality in a capitalist society that, aided and abetted by our current government, prioritises profit above all else – a truth that might finally be dawning on many of us. In the meantime, it’s time we turned our sights towards our credit unions, or maybe back to beneath our mattresses.