Human toll of crisis grows as 29 deaths linked to financial despair
The misery caused by the collapse of the property industry is incalculable, writes Jerome Reilly
The collapse of the construction industry and the property market has led to 29 suicides directly linked to financial despair, according to the Irish Property Council (IPC).
But they say that many more deaths have resulted from the the whirlwind of job losses, failed investments and financial difficulties of the past two years.
The reality is that many small players in the multi-billion euro industry have taken the dreadful decision to end their lives -- people who have lost their jobs, small sub contractors left in the lurch when bigger builders went bust and small investors now unable to meet repayments on properties they bought during the boom that are now worth a fraction of what they paid for them.
There have been some high-profile cases. The death of property developer John O'Dolan from Galway struck a particular chord. He was a gregarious man, known for his charity work, his drive and cheerful disposition.
But the 51-year-old developer had been "stressed and depressed" and had been to see a psychiatrist the day before his tragic death at Rusheen Bay in Galway.
His old friend, Fr Peter Finnerty, in an interview with this newspaper, recalled that John had told him in a telephone call that he was under "fierce pressure" from one of the major banks to repay loans. Though John gave no sign during that phone call that he could no longer cope with his financial worries, he took his life shortly after.
Mr O'Dolan, who was one of the west's best known auctioneers, had branched out into international property development in the Nineties through O'Dolan International; and in 2007, along with three others, he bought the Island of Ireland at the unique World Development off the coast of Dubai for €28m.
He later purchased the Island of England for €23.5m but those projects ran into trouble long before Dubai's massive debt problems hit the world headlines.
Another tragic death linked to the collapse was that of Austin Cripps Junior, who owned a shoe business in Terenure, south Dublin, but who had moved into property development, including one proposal to build 11 houses in Co Wicklow.
The death of Dublin businessman and property developer Patrick Rocca at the age of just 42 was another shocking pointer to the toll on the human psyche of financial worries. At the inquest into his
death, a deposition read by a garda on behalf of Patrick's brother Bernard gave a small insight into the despair that engulfed him.
Bernard said he spoke to Patrick shortly before his death and that he did not seem his usual self. The inquest heard that Patrick said things were going badly (in his business), he was having problems sleeping and he was considering ending it all. Patrick had been in contact with a doctor following this and when Bernard met him at Christmas in 2008, he seemed to be back to his usual self.
Bernard Rocca said he had no idea his brother was considering taking his life, but the fact his body was found at an area outside his home where there was no CCTV coverage suggested he had planned his death. He said that his brother was a kind person and a good father who was sadly missed.
Around the same time, Jack Marry, a wealthy pig farmer from Co Louth, ended his life one morning in late 2008. The 64-year-old farmer from Proudfootstown in Drogheda had built up one of the most successful piggeries in Ireland. He was considered the best pig farmer in the country. It is understood that he made a number of outside investments in the period leading up to his death.
According to David Mellon, of the Irish Property Council, the human misery inflicted by the catastrophic collapse in the property and the construction industry is incalculable
"I was having a pint with a friend of mine and he got a text from an employee. My friend was in shock and he showed me the message. It read: 'I cannot come into work tonight. My brother killed himself today. He had no work for his trucks.' This man wasn't an investor. He wasn't a speculator. He wasn't anything other than a man trying to make a living," said Mr Mellon.
He believes that by the time the economy recovers, hundreds of people will have taken their own lives because they have been plunged into despair.
"We are talking about people who invested in property, people who earned their livelihood from it in many forms; builders, plasterers, plumbers, developers and large and small investors. They are now facing financial disaster, bankruptcy, destitution and we felt that there was no cohesive response on their behalf. We [the IPC] felt the smaller player was not being represented. We've got one garda who has three houses which are all in negative equity. His rental income has fallen by 40 per cent. He now now finds himself unable to meet the mortgage repayments. The lenders are threatening to move against him.
"The implications for him are very serious because if you are a garda and have a judgement registered against you it is presumed that it compromises your ability to act as a member of the Garda Siochana so he actually faces losing his livelihood," Mr Mellon said.
He said the small investors caught in the maelstrom covers every sector of Irish society -- doctors, teachers, engineers, architects, solicitors and tradesmen and women.
"We have a lot of tradesmen, electricians and plumbers, who have not got adequate pensions and who looked on property as a good way to save for their old age; to make provisions for their pension and their retirement.
"We have more than anecdotal evidence that some banks are not engaging. There is a range of different approaches happening. Some bankers have been a long time in the industry and have the skills to sit down with people and act responsibly to come up with solutions that are fair and reasonable to all concerned. Other banks have never been in this situation and there is evidence that inexperienced people who are not trained in this situation are being given huge responsibilities and are making awful decisions that are destroying people's lives," he says.
He was in no doubt that people were taking their own lives in despair.
"There have been some high-profile cases but there are dozens and dozens more which have not come out for various reasons, People are not shouting it from the roof tops in many cases even though they are in despair about the loss of a loved one. But there is absolute carnage, particularly in the construction-related sector. We really don't know the full extent of the turmoil that people are going through before they make such a dreadful decision. It seems to me that people are being harassed or tormented to such an extent that it has a psychological effect on them which is causing them to feel they have no other choice but to leave this world."
He said the IPC was trying to encourage constructive engagement with the banks.
"Without that, there can be no solution. In my experience, most people are making every effort to be responsible for what they have undertaken to repay," he said.
And the situation could get much worse in the coming months. The last of the 'interest only' property loans were signed off by the banks in mid summer 2008. They had been an increasingly popular product for investors and first-time buyers over much of the previous two years.
The interest-only period ranged from two, three or five years and now thousands of those loans will revert to capital repayment loans during the next few months.
It couldn't happen at a worse time. For small investors, it is a huge problem. Rents are still in the doldrums and though there is evidence of a slight recovery, there is little chance that income will match the repayments now being sought.
For first-time buyers who gambled on the property market continuing to rise, the scenario is truly frightening. Cost of living and tax increases, pay cuts, unemployment or short-time working, rises in interest rates and negative equity means many will face losing their home, according to auctioneer Vincent Kelly of Kelly Bradshaw Dalton in Drumcondra, Dublin.
"With rents having tumbled by 30 to 35 per cent, people are now going to receive letters in the post from their banks telling them that their mortgages will now go back to a capital repayment loan.
"This isn't only investors but also first-time buyers. The banks sold these products and now they are coming home to roost. We should be flagging this so people are aware what's coming down the line."
He said one option for those who would not be able to meet the new repayments was to go back to their banks and renegotiate the loan period.
"If they have 15 years' repayments left after the interest-only period expires, they could look at extending it out to 20 or 25 years. It is obviously more expensive in the long term but at least they will be able to meet the monthly repayments now," he said.
"I don't think people are aware of what is happening," Mr Kelly added.
David Mellon agreed that the end of 'interest-only' loan periods poses huge problems for thousands of people.
"The British Banking Federation came up with a code of conduct after the crash in the late Eighties which saw a similar level of carnage in their market. They realised that huge mistakes were being made on all sides which had stopped a return to normal trading conditions.
"We have looked at that code of conduct and it is very fair and gives both parties a framework to work within. It should be looked at immediately by the Financial Regulator and the Central Bank," he said.
Mr Mellon said he believed commentator John Waters got it right when he said that property became an obsession.
"Irish people gravitate towards property. They began to make investments in all parts of the globe and did so by remortgaging property here, taking their capital and putting it to work around the world and it was green for go. They believed they were doing the right thing and the Government gave no indication that there was anything sinister or unforeseen coming down the line.
"Now it transpires that financial regulation was virtually non-existent regarding the assessment of the liquidity of the banks and the structure of the lending market. The entire nation is now paying a terrible price," he said.
One of the main aims of the IPC is that the sanctity of the family home should be safeguarded.
"Women and children are innocent victims in all this. Banks coerced and encouraged people to borrow. In many cases, they insisted that wives sign documents that they knew nothing about. They did not know what they were signing. It was 'sign here, sign here or you will not be given the money you require.' People did that in good faith and now they face losing the roof over their heads," he said.