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Friday, 12 June 2015

Fergus Rowan vs the banks

The recent furore over the IBRC and the sale of Siteserv to Denis O’Brien brought to mind the struggles of Fergus Rowan against Bank ofIreland in the 1970s. However, while O’Brien benefitted from the operations of the IBRC, Rowan saw himself as the victim of actions taken by the Bank of Ireland.

Fergus Rowan during his sit-in
22 August 1975
Irish bank officials went on strike in 1966, 1970 and 1976, with work stoppages lasting for a total of one year. The longest consecutive stoppage was in 1970, when bank officials went on strike for six months. Many officials moved to England during this time to work there, and returned to a wage increase after strike negotiations hammered out a deal.

The general public did not fare so well, though. Cheques became an essential part of life in an economy without access to a banking system. But as the work stoppages continued, cheques began to run out. People began to innovate and create their own cheques on envelopes or the backs of cigarette packets. Storing the cheques became a real burden for business-owners, as they had to be protected until the strike ended, but accepting cheques was the only way to maintain customer loyalty and trade during this time.

Sadly, when the banks and clearing houses finally opened again, it was discovered that many cheques were worthless – they were fraudulent and bounced. A lot of businesses suffered losses as a result, some to such an extent that they went out of business, e.g. Palgrave Shipping.

Rowan teaching his children to stand up for their rights
22 August 1975
The Rowan family business also ended up with several ‘bad cheques’. Their seed and nursery firm, which had been in operation for generations, went into receivership. But it was when the site of the business was purchased that Rowan finally saw red. Their shop had been in a prime location in College Green in Dublin’s city centre, across from Trinity and right beside a Bank of Ireland branch. BoI bought the site, allowing them to extend their branch.

Rowan and several other angry customers became a well-known presence in the AGMs of all the major Irish banks, changing what had previously been a relaxing day out for the directors into a public hunt for accountability. Rowan took his battle a step further by holding a sit-in at theBoI branch to draw attention to how the banks had destroyed the livelihoods of many small businesses like his own. He managed to retain occupancy of the branch for three days, and garnered a lot of media attention. Crowds of supporters gathered outside alongside his family, though some of his childrenmanaged to slip inside and sit it out with their father.

Rowan being served with a court order to vacate the building by court official Paul Harman
 with the bank manager as a witness

22 August 1975

Fergus Rowan died in 2008, aged 85. Hopefully, he was spared seeing the destruction brought on Ireland once again by the banks and their policies. On the other hand, it would have been great to hear his opinion, which no doubt would have been as critical of Anglo, the bail-out, the IBRC and the Denis O’Brien injunction as he was of the striking bankers four decades ago.

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