Gardaí preventing ATM withdrawals is a very, very, bad optic

On Tuesday evening, the photos and videos began to flood social media. A glitch in Bank of Ireland’s systems had led to a situation where customers with very low funds balances were able to withdraw or transfer up to €1,000.

For those who hadn’t thought this through, it might have seemed like a golden opportunity, and queues began to gather at cash machines around the country. People were jostling for space on some pavements, with some not bothering to change out of their pyjamas.

The reality is that Bank of Ireland, as they swiftly pointed out in a statement, would debit the account of any customer who had transferred or withdrawn funds during the glitch. So anyone who had happily withdrawn €1,000 from their account without actual funds there to back up that transaction, would find themselves owing the bank €1,000.

In real life, as the saying goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Banks chase debts, funds are recovered, mistakes are rectified.

But shortly after the rise of giddy speculation about the prospect of ATMs spewing out money to those who didn’t have it, like some modern-day Robin Hood, images of the queues began to appear.

The appearance of said images were then apparently followed in jig time by members of An Garda Síochána.

Photographs and videos show squad cars and uniformed Gardaí at Bank of Ireland cash machines – and seem to show members of the force acting to prevent people using the ATMs.

It was reported that the Gardaí went sent to disperse the queues and to actively stop people taking money from ATMs – effectively from their own bank accounts.

“Gardaí across the country have been directed to clear queues and to close access to ATMs after rumours spread online that people were able to withdraw more money than they had available in their Bank of Ireland (BOI) accounts,” the Journal reported

“[G]ardaí began to clear people from some ATMs on foot of a directive by Garda command and control centres in three regions,” the platform said.

Likewise, the Irish Times reported:

Gardaí in some cases prevented people accessing ATMs and dispersed queues waiting to use them. Garda headquarters on Wednesday said the decision to deploy units to ATMs was made at a local level and “on a case-by-case basis” taking into account “public safety” and “public order” concerns.

They prevented people accessing ATMs and dispersed queues? That seems very much like overreach to me.

RTÉ said that “in response to a query from RTÉ’s News at One, on whether the bank requested any assistance from gardaí at ATMs, the bank said: “Dialogue took place between Bank of Ireland and An Garda Síochána, but local decisions were made by the guards (not requested by the bank) to station personnel at a number of ATMs.”

The station also reported that “a garda spokesperson said the decisions around access and dispersals of queues at ATMs were made locally – and that the direction from command and control centres was to ensure public safety and public order”.

Ah that old reliable ‘public order’.

The 1994 Public Order Act is a tremendously flexible piece of legislation, allowing Gardai to make arrests when citizens fail to comply with a public order directive, for example.

In this instance, the evidence of public order concerns seem a bit thin. It seems far more likely, in my opinion, that Gardaí were dispatched in order to minimise the loss of any irrecoverable funds as a result of a mistake made by a hugely profitable private business, Bank of Ireland.

Its unclear what legal basis could possibly exist to prevent any BOI customer from using a valid bank card at a valid ATM to make a withdrawal – or to access their own funds. It was an extraordinary intervention by the Gardaí.

Gardaí aren’t financial advisers, and they have no right, under any law, to stop a person and ask them what funds they have in their bank account. RTE reported that “Gardaí also reminded people of their personal responsibility in carrying out their personal banking”. What absolute nonsense.

This is not the fault of rank and file Gardaí, of course, who were just complying with orders. But there are questions to be answered about why these decisions were made and about whether anyone is answerable as to who decided that the Gardaí are now responsible for preventing bank withdrawals.

It did, to be honest, remind me of the nonsense we were all forced to put up with during the Covid lockdowns – when Gardaí were sent out to enforce laws that in ordinary times would be a clear violation of civil rights.

The timing was also lousy. The furore that has arisen in recent times around the rise in violent crime – to the extent that the US embassy in Dublin advised visitors to this country to avoid walking alone and keep a “low profile”  – has brought new attention to the Gardaí’s perceived lack of visibility.

There have been controversies about delay in response times, and around desperate calls to 999 being left to ring for up to 5 minutes. It was perhaps unsurprising then that plenty of people expressed frustration with the prompt reaction to attend to ATMs which was felt contrasted badly to the perception that “there’s never a Garda around when you need one”.

Compounding that dissatisfaction may be a growth in negative public mood towards the banks, who are now seeing as making bumper profits on the inflation crisis, with rising interest rates causing real pain for ordinary mortgage holders.

Banks have also been criticised for being slow to pass on interest rate increases to savers  – some of whom are getting 0% interest while banks are reaping 3.75% from the Central Bank. It seems greedy and opportunistic.

Its one of these occasions where the optics are just lousy. Violent crime is increasing, high-profile muggings and attacks abound in the capital and elsewhere, Gardaí are leaving the force in such numbers that retention is now a major problem, the Minister doesn’t seem to have a clue, but squad cars and officers can be sent down pronto to protect Bank of Ireland from their own mistakes.

Definitely not a good look.

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