Friday 19 January 2018

'People have cried from their boots, heartbroken'

Debt management expert Tony Carey tells Niamh Horan about the human cost of Ireland's financial crisis

Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

TONY Carey has seen it all – he is at the coalface of the raw emotion and sheer desperation that has gripped Ireland's indebted people.

Over the past five years he has worked on debt management cases totalling tens of billions of euro. From representing some of the country's biggest borrowers to helping ordinary families who are on the verge of losing their home.

A trusted negotiator, with over 30 years' experience, he has also worked on behalf of the banks, as they try to recoup the money due from borrowers.

But no matter what side of the fight he is on, he has stuck to one hard rule: "I walk if I feel my client is not playing their part in the deal."

Sitting in his inviting office in Sandyford, it's difficult to imagine some of the emotional scenes that have unfolded across the table.

The boardroom is peppered with bowls of sweets and jellies and the walls are covered with photographs from his motorbike travels around the world.

But here is where some of the casualties of Ireland's recession lay themselves bare.

Grown men "crying from their boots", businessmen breaking the news of their financial difficulty to their wives after years of simply being too scared to share the burden and, of course, the desperate thoughts that they might be better off if they were to end their lives.

The founder of the Cooney Carey team has learned to listen and offer support, a word of hope based on finding a solution when everything has turned to dust.

"Unfortunately many times people may consider the option of ending it. In most cases they won't use the exact words but the option itself comes up. 'Wouldn't everyone be better off' is something I hear. The lack of hope and a path to a resolution is a huge weight."

And sometimes they turn to their accountants before their own family know how deeply indebted they are.

"It is difficult to 'talk at home' sometimes in that, whilst the problem is shared and aired, it is not resolved because it is too big. A lot of my work is simply listening – the best advice I can provide is that if you cannot fix the problem yourself then it is someone else's problem – so stop worrying.

"We have seen so many cases, in the hundreds, where pointing out to a person that they are not alone in their problems, that in fact they are "normal", is a major relief. We would also ask people to focus on what they do have – most people compare their position to what it was five years ago, whereas this was a false position. We would encourage people to compare their position to when they started out, they probably had nothing then, but have achieved a lot for their family in the interim."

Describing the pressure banks are putting people under, he says: "Over the last five years we have worked on debt management cases totalling in the tens of billions. These cases have involved us examining cases for banks regarding their clients or for clients presenting to banks. The task in both situations is the same – to achieve 'transparency and co-operation'.

"To gather data so as both sides are clear on the figures and then work toward a deal that everyone can live with. The problem until relatively recently is that a good number of banks demanded this 'transparency and co-operation' but did not return it.

"This placed pressure on the bank's clients by, firstly, (putting them in) the way of the unknown, (causing) constant worrying, given a lack of clarity as to what the banks intentions were and, secondly, (demanding) the impossible – (clients were) being pressed to do something they simply cannot afford to.

"This pressure has rendered people helpless. Businesses have stalled or regressed because the owners do not understand what to do next, or if it is worth doing anything at all. The pressure in many cases has been debilitating, it has extracted the much-needed drive to create business and employment. It has resulted in poor or short-term decision making, hiding from reality, ill health and worse.

"And, yes, I am unfortunately aware of people who have taken their lives apparently linked to financial pressure and the 'no hope' factor that comes from it."

"Many, many people have cried from their boots, heartbroken. Very many have been extremely angry that they feel they are carrying the burden of many people's decision making.

"I have seen, however, where anger mitigates against people addressing the problem, the issue is to deal with it rather than look for someone to blame. The banks note that an extraordinary amount of people, perhaps one in three, have not engaged with them. I would be more and more confident in people engaging with the banks, given the efforts that the banks have made in recent times. It is worthwhile and necessary.

"The banks have made tremendous efforts to find a formula to address the current situation, in fairness to them this situation has been unprecedented and it has taken time, but I do believe that communication with the banks, who in my experience are decent people, is the best way forward.

"In the early days of the recession, it was quite common for people not to tell their spouse and family. This significantly added to their personal pressure. People thought their particular situation was abnormal and they had failed the family. Indeed, many did not accept their situation as being real.

"We had many cases where we broke the news to the family because the borrower just could not find the words. But as the recession developed and it became evident that so many people were in financial difficulty it became less difficult for them to share it. At this stage we have extremely few cases, if any, of the borrower not discussing the situation in full within the family.

"In fact, there was a lovely moment at a recent meeting where the wife turned to her husband and said "we may have lost everything, but you are still good looking and that's why I married you."

It seems the age-old adage doesn't hold true after all.

Sunday Independent

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