Farm organisations are upping the ante in their opposition to pillar banks selling off farm loans to vulture funds, reports Claire Fox
Dairy and beef farmer Seamus Davern faced every farmer's nightmare in 2016 when his dairy herd of over 120 cows was hit by TB.
With a wife and four children to look after, the Tipperary man contacted his local AIB branch in Thurles straight away. His aim was to rebuild the herd from scratch, but Seamus' dealings with the bank started to get rocky during this period.
"I already had 34 in-calf heifers, so I built up the herd with them and bought some young stock," says the Rossmore farmer, whose children are now aged between five and 16.
"I got on to AIB as soon as we found out about the TB. I had four loans with them. It took a while to get answers from them, but it was eventually arranged that I would just pay interest on them for a time.
"I was paying back the interest on the loans and managed to get on track in 2018 and paid back one small loan in full."
Seamus was hopeful that the tide was starting to turn in the farm's favour.
But two letters recently arrived at his door from AIB which stated that three of his loans were being sold to Everyday Finance, with expected transfer due on June 14, and that his overdraft of €15,000 was being stopped and sold if it wasn't fully paid back by June 7.
"I was shocked when I got this. I never neglected a loan in my life. Even in 2009 when I ran in to overdraft problems, I kept up with the repayments," explains Seamus.
"I'm 47 years of age and have dealt with AIB since the age of 14 and am disgusted at this. The title deeds of my home and farm are against these loans. I don't want to face the prospect of that going into the hands of vulture funds - they're called vultures for a reason, they don't care."
Seamus' case is one of 130 farm loans which are set to be sold by AIB to Everyday Finance as part of a consortium with Everyday and affiliates of Cerberus Capital Management.
Last week, the IFA staged a protest urging the bank to halt its decision to sell non-performing loans to vulture funds. The IFA is due to meet with AIB CEO Colin Hunt this week to discuss the sale of the farming loans.
IFA farm business chairman Martin Stapleton says it's time AIB followed through on its advertising slogan of "backing brave" and halted its sale of farmer loans.
"Our members would be prepared not to bid on farms where a farmer has made every possible attempt to pay the loan," he adds.
Seamus is hopeful that the IFA discussion with AIB brings positive results, but is in negotiation with another bank who may take on his loans.
Fianna Fail TD John McGuinness says he has seen farmers whose loans have been sold to vulture funds break down in front of him, so much so that he allowed one elderly drystock farmer sleep in a jeep in his yard last year.
"I had a situation last year where an elderly farmer was treated very badly by a vulture fund. His farm was sold. He came to me and slept in a jeep in my yard. He didn't know where to turn," says the Carlow-Kilkenny TD.
Mr McGuinness (pictured) has been campaigning for better regulation of vulture funds for several years and says that while the IFA action is late, the farm organisation needs to put pressure on the Government to stop the AIB sale.
"IFA and Government need to stand firm and the Government needs to ensure it doesn't give permission to sell these loans and that it isn't just brushed under the carpet," he says.
While Fianna Fail's Private Members Bill to regulate Vulture funds was signed in to law in December, Mr McGuinness says stronger legislation needs to be implemented and accused the Government and party leaders of "pandering to the banks".
Meanwhile, party colleague Jackie Cahill feels that farm loans being sold to vulture funds is scandalous when most farmers are in a position to pay back their loans.
"It's utterly appalling how the Government can stand over this. When banks do this, they break the trust built with their customers."
David Hall, director of the Irish Mortgage Holders' Association, points out that AIB's chief customer and strategic officer, Jim O'Keeffe, said in a recent Finance Committee that research was being done looking into the possibility of transferring non-performing loans to charitable organisations instead of being sold to vulture funds.
Mr Hall says this is an activity the IFA should be pursuing. He adds that the Personal Insolvency Act 2012 should be amended to protect land which is being used for business purposes as many farmers are in the position where they have leveraged their loan against land.
He also urged farmers to seek professional advice if they are in arrears.
"We're dealing with 192 farmers in arrears, some who have loans with AIB and some who have loans with other banks. Farmers in arrears shouldn't hide.
By engaging with us and the banks, they increase their chances of restructuring their loan and paying it back 10-fold," he says.
A spokesperson for AIB said that it cannot comment on individual cases but that it has "contacted customers with overdrafts outlining how we can support their working capital requirements."
AIB confirmed that the sale of €1bn worth of loans consists of 2,200 non performing customer loans, around 95pc of which have been non performing for over two years.