February 27, 2009

Better phones, better insurance, bad banks

Nine years ago I wrote an article1 for the Irish Times recounting my travails, having moved from Dublin to Armagh to work for the Centre for Cross Border Studies, when I tried to open a cross-border bank account, buy a mobile phone which I could also use to ring Southern numbers, insure my car and do other normal things that one does when moving to a job in a neighbouring jurisdiction.

It was incredibly complicated. Transferring money between Northern and Southern branches of the Bank of Ireland without punitive charges was impossible. The mass of conflicting information from mobile phone providers made my head spin. The purchase of car insurance was slowed by computers snagging on information from the South, and ridiculous sub-regulations that made it impossible for my wife to drive my Northern-registered car. Fellow Southerners told me to make sure that my children did not have an accident during a visit north for fear of exorbitant hospital charges. I concluded the article with a despairing cry: “Is it beyond the wit of financial institutions, telephone companies and health boards to start clearing the bureaucratic minefields which continue to litter this now largely peaceful territory?”

Nine years on I thought I would re-visit some of these problematic areas to see if there had been any progress. I was pleasantly surprised that the position re-mobile phones and car insurance seems to have got much better. Not surprisingly, the banking situation remains complicated, with some banks having improved while some – believe it or not – have actually got worse.

International mobile phone charges remain utterly impenetrable to most ordinary customers. However the companies assured me that everything had changed radically across the Irish border. O2 pointed to an announcement on their website dating from 2006 which promised that customers making previously costly ‘roaming’ calls (i.e. calls near the border that inadvertently connect to a network in the other jurisdiction) would not incur such charges in the future. At the same time the company announced an all-island ‘pre-pay’ flat rate for calls and texts. The website said ‘post-paid’ customers had been paying the same rate for cross-border calls as for domestic (i.e. own jurisdiction) calls since 2003.

A young man in the Vodafone head office in Dublin informed me that Vodafone in the Republic and Northern Ireland had reached an agreement that they would charge “the same price for calls between Belfast and Dublin as between Dublin and Waterford.” All I had to do was to ring Vodafone in Northern Ireland and get the “international bar” on my mobile “unbarred.”

[I have to say that I didn’t actually test these statements myself. I took the decision nine years ago to have a Southern mobile phone for my calls from the South and a Northern mobile for my calls from the North, and have stuck with that safe, old-fashioned option ever since. I would be interested in other regular cross-border travellers’ experience of using mobile phones.]

Car insurance couldn’t have been easier. By quoting my Irish driving licence, the make of my Northern car, and the postcode in my Northern address – and assuring her that both my wife and I had ‘no claims’ bonuses in the South – the same Armagh insurance broker I had such difficulty with nine years earlier was able within five minutes to give me a very competitive rate of £269 for a year’s comprehensive insurance covering both me and my wife.

The banks were a different story. The worst was the Bank of Ireland, which nine years ago was proposing to charge £6 per cross-border transaction (via bank draft), had now raised this to an exorbitant £25 for a ‘telegraphic transfer’. First Trust Bank (a sister bank of AIB) offered the same high-charge same day transfer, or a £14 charge for a Euro draft which I would then have to post myself. Ulster Bank said a cross-border BACS transaction would cost £25, but helpfully added that if I wanted to pay a cheque into a branch in the North, the bank would use its internal mail system to transfer it to an Ulster Bank branch in Dublin on the following day at no extra cost.

Perhaps the most improved banks of all are the two which since 2005 have been part of the Danish Danske Bank Group: Northern Bank and National Irish Bank. If you trust online banking, you can now transfer money electronically between these two banks free of charge, whereas before there would have been a cross-border change of €10 in the South and £12 in the North.

However having a good Scandinavian IT platform doesn’t mean the bad old Irish banking habits of indifference to the ordinary customer have disappeared. Attracted by this new cross-border offer, I went into a large NIB branch in Dublin recently to inquire about opening a savings account with a relatively sizeable amount of money. I have to say that the official behind the counter couldn’t have been less interested.

Andy Pollak

1 I’ve got those cross-border blues March 2000, Irish Times