Thursday 27 November 2014

A tale of two Irelands, but one of them is pure fiction

Stress over debt can affect happiness, destroy relationships and cause untold harm to our children, says Carol Hunt

Published 22/06/2014 | 02:30

How must people living in the 22 per cent of jobless households (nearly double the level of the rest of the EU) feel?
How must people living in the 22 per cent of jobless households (nearly double the level of the rest of the EU) feel?

'It's just money," my husband often tells me when I'm stressed to the limit about yet another bill or mortgage demand that comes through the door. "It's not worth getting depressed about." But, as so many people in Ireland know to their cost, financial stress can ruin your happiness, destroy your marriage and cause untold harm to you and your children.

And yet the 21st Century buzzword is "happy". We're all searching for that elusive ideal; happiness. Psychologist Maureen Gaffney, in a new RTE programme called How to be Happy, gave us tips on how to focus on the positive. Which is all very well, but what if we can't see a positive? What if we're in a black hole of debt that no amount of mindfulness, good vibes or writing letters of gratitude can get us out of? Who do we turn to then?

"Suicide was a huge issue," said William Prior to News-talk's Ivan Yates last Wednesday morning. An auctioneer and farmer from Offaly, Prior was explaining why he set up the Phoenix Project, an organisation which offers free assistance and support to distressed borrowers (with professionals including counsellors), based in Portlaoise. "People felt they couldn't pay their mortgages," he said. "I questioned why people had taken their own lives – was it just because of debt?"

If I find it hard to sleep wondering how we can survive after paying all our bills each month, how must people living in the 22 per cent of jobless households (nearly double the level of the rest of the EU) feel? Particularly the massive 56 per cent of those homes who have children living in them? What about people working every hour God sends for a measly €8.65 an hour (for an experienced adult worker)? That amount wouldn't cover the cost of keeping the heat and lights on in many a household, let alone put food on the table. And it certainly wouldn't even begin to cover the cost of childcare – Ireland has the highest childcare costs in the world. Statistically one in four people in Ireland suffers material deprivation – quite literally they can't put meat on the table every day. Inequality is spiralling. No wonder the country is drowning in alcohol and Prozac.

Meanwhile, mental health services continue to be eviscerated and people in debt are given the "moral hazard" lecture, ie: "You made your bed, now you can lie in it." Yes, somehow we're in a country where being in debt for billions is just 'business', but being a couple of hundred euro short on your mortgage is morally shameful. Lose gazillions on bad property bids or bond gambles? No worries; just get your lawyers to sort a deal which leaves you living in the manner to which you are accustomed. Lose your job through no fault of your own and can't pay the mortgage? Tough – before you can say "moral hazard" you and your family are in a tent by the M50. That's if you haven't cracked up from the stress and humiliation before that.

David Hall of the Irish Mortgage Holders' Organisation (IMHO) told Sean O'Rourke last week that it was "estimated that up to 10,000 homeowners are engaged in a stand-off with banks who want them to surrender their homes".

"Many of these people are being forced into silent repossessions," he said.

"The emotional and mental toil is often ignored", said Amanda Grace, a counsellor with the Phoenix Project. "It's hugely unspoken, and even in families themselves this is a conversation that's not being had, even at home. [People need to be able to say] 'I'm struggling here and I need help' and for that not to be a shameful thing."

Fergus Finlay, CEO of Barnardos, agrees. Last week he said: "Our staff are seeing increased instances of mental health difficulties among patients, and where it is unsupported or inadequately supported, children are affected . . . Barnardos sees numerous contributing factors, including the recession and associated cuts, that leave families struggling with related anxiety and hopelessness."

This is the Ireland that many of us live in. But then there's the other Ireland. The Lovely Ireland. The Ireland of those with high-paying, secure jobs and low mortgages. The Ireland that Enda Kenny and all the people he hangs out with live in. Everything is coming up roses in that Ireland.

Last week Enda told the Irish Funds Industry Association annual conference how his Ireland has seen "strong annual job growth" and "a sharp reduction in unemployment". "We have also exceeded our budgetary targets, and will reduce the Government deficit to below 3 per cent of GDP by 2015 and eliminate it altogether by 2018." He added, "The strong performance of the jobs market is consistent with the stabilisation of domestic demand that emerged over the course of last year."

Enda's Ireland is the one of "turned corners", "economic recovery" and "increasing wealth". I don't know about you but I want to move there. I certainly don't want to live in the other Ireland, the one William Prior told me about, where people are at their wits' end at the thought of losing their homes, where he's seen the "break-up of marriages" and "children caught up" in the whole awful nightmare. "It's why we meet people with a cup of tea and biscuits when they arrive," he says. "Though it can take a few meetings before they're not in fear and can talk properly to us."

And in case you're wondering, the clients of the Phoenix Project, and organisations like the IMHO and New Beginnings, are not just the low-paid or unemployed. "We have nurses, guards, doctors, all types of people in debt distress," Prior tells me.

But perhaps Enda doesn't know about this other Ireland? Maybe nobody is telling him? "We've spent two-and-a-half years looking for a meeting with the Taoiseach," says Prior. "We want him to know the facts, what's happening on the ground ... that there are a huge amount of people who are depressed ... that suicide is high on the agenda and [in some cases] is debt related."

Happiness? I'm with Dickens on this one: "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen (pounds) nineteen (shillings) and six (pence), result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery."

For hundreds of thousands of Irish families, that's a lot of misery.

www.phoenixproject.ie, helpline: 1850 203040; www.mortgageholders.ie

Sunday Independent

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