HARASSMENT by banks is causing untold suffering to thousands of struggling business proprietors, according to a former restaurateur from Bray, Co Wicklow, who has spoken out about being plagued "to the bitter end" by the aggressive attitude of financial institutions.
A proud smile lights up the weary face of Tara O'Grady as she reflects on her time as owner of 'Diva' in Greystones. Her smile soon fades as she describes how her trade tumbled.
In 2008, she was forced to move 'Diva' from the Greystones marina to Bray's Main Street because trade was severely disrupted by the marina development.
"It drove customers away. I was no longer able to stay and vacated it that year," she says.
Endeavouring not to let down creditors and staff, she moved the entire business six miles down the road, at which point the banks and suppliers pulled all credit facilities.
"Due to the seasonal nature of the business, we were no longer able to deal with slack periods. Rent reduction was not on the table. The bank that gave finance for the commercial company vehicle began a relentless quest to repossess, despite being paid €100 per week at the time," says Tara, who has worked in the catering business since she was 13.
For two years the bank would call her up to five times a day. In August last year, events finally overtook her and she was forced to vacate her Bray premises.
"My two-year battle was sadly over and the battle left its scars," she admits.
At this point Tara knew she was heading for a breakdown. With constant calls and pressure from the banks, stress set in and she went through a complete loss of confidence and concentration.
"I was in massive debt with no potential income to support myself and my 18-year-old son. I could not sleep with worry and became very ill from stress, she says.
Tara's distress was not at her personal loss but the feeling of letting so many people down.
"My staff were owed money that I had no way of paying them. The pain of these people that I cared for being angry, was indescribable.
"When despair kicks in, you can't find any place that is comfortable. I was at the point where I couldn't cope any more. I wasn't functioning right and hardly knew what day it was."
Her car was repossessed and her postbox became the most fearful place to visit each day.
"I needed someone with me when opening letters as I would be shaking. I explained to all the banks my insolvent situation but they kept threatening.
"I became so incredibly frightened because I had no way of giving them what they wanted. I was forced to change my phone number," she admits.
This was the point where her health broke.
"I will never know how I got through that time. I had started to withdraw completely from the outside world and being afraid was my first and last feeling every day" she said.
Now Tara lives in hope that the banks and courts will give her time to recover in order to address the issue of her debts.
She says Ireland's outdated personal insolvency laws urgently need reform.
"The banks feel that if they scare you enough by using the court system, someone will pick up the book. Ed Honohan said that even when the balance sheets have been cleared and debts written off, they have to be seen to pursue people. It's totally immoral and unethical."
Tara's story is one of thousands and is indicative of what is happening all over the country.
"Many people are ending their lives because of pressures put upon them. I won't be at the other side of this until the banks back off. I am unemployed, unwell and completely insolvent. It makes no sense for the banks to continue this harassment."