Tuesday 25 October 2016

O'Donnell sideshow distracts from real rise in repossessions and homelessness

Published 06/05/2015 | 02:30

Brian O'Donnell and his son Blake
Brian O'Donnell and his son Blake

My ears are still bleeding. I listened to yesterday's Pat Kenny interview with ex-solicitor and property magnate Brian O'Donnell about how bloody unfair it was that the Bank of Ireland took his children's mansion away from them. It was a very, very long interview, because Mr O'Donnell is feeling very, very sorry for himself.

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I'm still trying to get the echo of his pained, patrician whine out of my head. Mr O'Donnell was accompanied to the studio by his faithful henchman, Jerry Beades of the 'New' Land League, for whom, it must be presumed, there is no such thing as bad publicity. We have spent months on this distraction. Yet neither Brian O'Donnell, his wife or children are facing imminent poverty or homelessness.

They won't have a problem paying the weekly shop in Aldi any time soon. Meanwhile, all over Ireland, families who don't have the funds to go to the courts 82 times or take their disgruntled egos to the European Court of Human Rights, have had to listen to this pampered, privileged family spout on for months about the cheek of our justice system treating them like little people.

At about the same time that Mr O'Donnell was pontificating, over on RTÉ, Keelin Shanley was discussing why new figures from the courts show that orders to repossess homes have risen 500pc in the past year. Alan Daveron, a solicitor who has represented a number of clients in mortgage arrears, was doing his best to dispel the popular view voiced by Ms Shanley that the "majority of people who are facing repossession proceedings are just not engaging with their banks".

Tut, tut, silly people. If they would only pick up the phone, the banks would be delighted to give them a break. It's a mantra that politicians and bankers are keen to repeat. Morally, if you're in mortgage trouble and facing real poverty, it's because you are a bad person. But Mr Daveron asked the legitimate question: "What is engagement?" From his experience, it's if families don't do exactly what the bank tells them to do. "I don't know anyone who is going to gamble with their family homes, especially if they have young kids," he added.

Some months ago, I visited the offices of the Phoenix Project, an organisation set up in 2008 by William Prior to assist distressed borrowers. While there, barrister Paul Comiskey-O'Keeffe took me through the ways that banks manipulate statistics to show that they are "engaging" with those in trouble - when in fact they are doing nothing of the sort. I met elderly couples, single mothers, unemployed fathers, all in despair because their banks would not engage seriously with them. These aren't property magnates, they are ordinary decent citizens who through no fault of their own are facing life on the streets.

One couple in their sixties were paying three-quarters of their mortgage monthly out of their social welfare payments. It wasn't enough.

"It looks like they [mortgage lenders] are trying to make an example of us," they said. "They just want us to send back the keys or sell the house."

What will they do then? There isn't a chance in hell that their pensions will cover rent - and rent allowance doesn't cover the cost of rent either. So they're right to say: "We watched the news about homelessness in Dublin last night, people sleeping on the streets and we thought, will that be us?" It easily could be.

But the Government is tackling all that, isn't it? Environment Minister Alan Kelly proudly announced that 1,700 social housing units will be built by 2017. "If I was a minister, I'd be embarrassed making that announcement," said Fr Peter McVerry bluntly on RTE yesterday.

"1,700 over three years? ... we're talking of providing accommodation for less than 2pc of the [housing ] waiting list."

It is estimated the banks are going to repossess up to 25,000 houses between now and 2017.

This repossession of family homes is terrible economics. Yet the people complaining about "strategic defaulters" don't seem to realise we'll be paying the social housing after the banks turf people out of their homes. Or would they prefer families lived in tents on the side of the M1?

"We have an enormous crisis," said Fr McVerry.

He's echoing what Mr Comiskey-O'Keeffe told me: "In 20 or 30 years' time, people will look back and realise that what's happening now is the scandal of the century."

'Moral hazard', 'strategic defaulting', 'debt responsibility'; all these phrases are thrown around whenever the topic of debt forgiveness crops up. In Dublin, last year, 500 families became homeless. Imagine if each and every one of them was given the attention that the O'Donnells got? We'd be listening to stories of homelessness from now until the next century.

At the centre of each story would be distressed, traumatised human beings. But not posh. Or rich. So not relevant.

Irish Independent

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