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Eilis O'Hanlon: Diamonds are forever, or until debt-chasers grab 'em

What a shame that Peter Jackson has already finished his forthcoming film version of The Hobbit. Justice Minister Alan Shatter would have been perfect for the role of Gollum.

When he intervened at the Oireachtas Justice Committee last week to flatly reject calls to allow people seeking insolvency to keep certain items of jewellery, he only just stopped short of muttering: "The rings, my precious, give me the rings."

He doesn't want all of them, naturally. That would be greedy. "If someone has a modest wedding ring or engagement ring valued at a couple of hundred euros," as he put it, "no one wants that individual to be put in a position where they may be deprived of that." How nice. All he wants to get his hands on are any "€200,000 or €300,000 diamond bazooka" that some wife might be carrying around on her person.

It was an interesting use of the word bazooka, which I had previously taken to be a slang term for a woman's breasts, as in the phrase "nice pair of bazookas, Duchess, but maybe you'd be better off not flaunting them in full view of French public roads". The all-knowing Google is similarly stumped by the use of the word in this new context, citing Shatter alone as a source. What was passing through the minister's mind as he made the great leap to bazookas must be for psychologists to disentangle.

In the meantime, we are left with a troubling image of trained snatch squads from the Department of Justice pouncing on passing women and forcing wedding rings from their fingers -- not, we trust, in the manner of Gollum, who favoured the direct application of teeth to flesh as his preferred method of extracting bands from uncooperative digits, but still, it's a long way from the modern, understanding solution to the problem of debt which was promised when a caring, listening government launched its new legislation on personal insolvency some months back as a replacement for archaic Irish laws on bankruptcy.

Maybe all the minister really cares about or listens to is the whining of banks who feared they might take too great a hit if debt forgiveness caught on.

It wasn't as if the new rules were not tough enough already. Claimants have to show that they have assets of under €400 in order to qualify for a write-off on debt, and even then the maximum value of a write-off is only €20,000; even if successful, it will still leave most with significant liabilities and difficulties. In such circumstances, arguing the toss about whether "one item of ceremonial significance" should be excluded from the list when a person's assets are being totted up is ludicrous at best and cold-hearted and insensitive at worst. Yet the minister brushed off criticism of his attitude with a dismissive: "Now let's get real about what we're talking about here."

Alan Shatter was the one who wasn't being real. He did the classic sixth form debaters' trick of knocking down arguments that hadn't actually been made. It's highly unlikely that anyone who owns a diamond ring worth that much money will be applying for personal insolvency that will allow them to claim such a small sum of relief in return, and he knew very well that Niall Collins, the Limerick Fianna Fail TD who proposed the amendment in committee, meant no such thing. Shatter only raised the spectre of Celtic Tiger "high rollers" flashing their bling because he knew that was a group of people for whom few would feel sympathy. He could then use the excuse of attacking rich people who are hiding their assets as cover in order to go hard on people with much more modest assets.

According to the Simple Weddings website, the average cost of an engagement ring in Ireland is €2,000. These are the people who, in reality, Shatter will be going after. Not the ones with "diamond bazookas" -- the phrase grows more unappealing with each repetition -- whose excesses during the boom filled the gossip pages, as his lurid version of the time had it.

And even if lots of women do have a collection of jewellry worth more than that, what of it? Most women gather a certain amount during a lifetime; given to them as gifts, or handed down from their own mothers. Each item is worth infinitely more than its monetary value. They're memories and mementoes of a life. They're symbolic of the relationships which have given a life meaning.

The young, idealistic Alan Shatter who wrote a tear-jerking romantic novel in his youth would have understood that. It's a pity the older, comfortably entrenched Alan Shatter who took his place has forgotten it.

How would any novel he wrote nowadays end: "With this ring I thee wed, though under the clear understanding that it remains an asset under the 2012 Personal Insolvency Bill and may have to be flogged later in part payment of debts"?

There is a way of dealing with insolvency brought about as a result of the recession without harvesting the heirlooms of ordinary people in this cruelly reductive way. It's about the sort of society one wants to create.

We could become like Portugal, where, last year, new "cash for gold"-type stores were opening at a rate of two a day as people sold off their wedding rings and other personal items to pay basic household bills and where, this year, they are closing just as quickly because people have run out of things to sell off cheap. Is that what the minister thinks the justice part of his auspicious title means? Is that the society he came into politics to help build? Is it, my precious?

Thankfully, there is a simple solution. Anyone who wishes to keep objects of sentimental value out of the hands of the State should just hide them. Don't let them be entered down as assets at all. Pick up some cheap knock-offs and pretend that these are your real engagement or wedding rings.

It's a big step to encourage anyone to break the law, but Shatter must be familiar with Howard Zinn's seven guidelines for civil disobedience, the second of which is that the right of citizens to disobey unjust laws is the essence of democracy itself. A wedding ring in the family is more important, brings more joy, and lasts far longer, than any here-today, gone-tomorrow minister.

Sunday Independent