We Can All Get by Quite Well Without Banks – Ireland Managed to Survive Without Them

A 1970 strike in Ireland provoked an admirable outbreak of ingenuity – Greece should take note

Television reporters stand in front of the shut doors of banks in Athens and speak as if a few days more of bank closure brings the Greeks that much closer to catastrophe. Media coverage dwells obsessively on the theme that for Greece it is five minutes to midnight, but somehow midnight never comes. Shuttered banks are a striking physical symbol of economic disaster, but even they are not proof that the final dénouement is at hand.

I recall a six-and-a-half month strike that closed all banks in Ireland in 1970 which was meant to have similarly calamitous results as predicted for Greece today, but in fact had very little destructive impact. Contrary to expectations, Irish people rapidly found other ways of carrying out the functions previously performed by the banking industry. The economist Michael Fogarty, who wrote the official report on the bank dispute, was quoted by the Irish Independent as saying that “the services of the clearing banks proved by no means as indispensable as would have been expected before the dispute”. Others take the example of the Irish bank strike as evidence that much of what banks do is a “socially useless activity”.

There were many bank strikes in Ireland in this period but the longest and best remembered took place between 1 May and 17 November 1970. It was recalled vividly, and sometimes with nostalgia, in later years by my parents, Claud and Patricia Cockburn, who lived a mile outside the town of Youghal in east County Cork. Outgoings always seemed to exceed income so their relations with local bank branches in Youghal were often frosty and occasionally confrontational. Bailiffs were a threat, particularly during the years that my father was suffering from, and later recovering from, TB, though financial disaster was usually averted at the last moment. Even so, for many years we had no car, relying on horse-drawn gigs and traps, and a phone had come and gone, a victim, my father would explain, of some “financial blizzard”.

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