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Maeve Sheehan: Bitter war is being waged on front line of debt crisis

WHEN Pat Ruane fell behind on his repayments for a Toyota Hiace van, the last thing he expected was to be assaulted by a debt collector dispatched on behalf of ACC Bank.

This was exactly what happened at 7am on an April morning in 2010 when Aidan Faulkner turned up on his land to repossess the van. Pat had fallen behind with his last three payments, amounting to €843 on an outstanding €17,900 loan.

In the ensuing stand-off, Ruane asked Faulkner to leave and called his solicitor, who told him he was within his rights to get the repossession man off his land. Ruane tried to move the Hiace van, rang his solicitor -- who advised him to call the gardai -- and got his guard dog.

As he tried to push Faulkner out of his gate, the debt collector caught him by the tie and pushed. Ruane pushed back and Faulkner then head-butted Ruane, leaving him with his nose broken in two places and a bleeding lip.

Luckily for Ruane, the ugly altercation was caught on CCTV cameras he had installed in his yard for security. Faulkner was found guilty of assault at Castlebar District Court last Thursday and ACC Bank didn't fare too well in the case either. Judge Mary Devins had said the bank's name was "dragged through the mud" and the letter the bank had provided terminating the contract was "meaningless".

ACC is still after the outstanding €843, but now Ruane plans to sue ACC for his injuries and stress.

Ruane has become something of a cause celebre amongst those struggling to repay outstanding debts to recalcitrant banks. Ruane said he has been contacted by "loads" of people sharing similar experiences of feeling hounded by banks for outstanding loans or mortgage arrears. "It's incredible what banks can do to people," he said this weekend. "How dare they do something like that to me or to anybody. You can't treat ordinary people in that manner. Who do they think they are? A few hundred euros? I was often owed five or 10 times that and do you think if you owed me €600 I would go and break your nose or even approach you in that manner?"

More than 100,000 households are struggling to repay their mortgages -- 70,000 of those are more than 90 days in arrears -- and the Central Bank expects the figures to worsen. Irish people owe more than €2.6bn on credit cards.

Last week Taoiseach Enda Kenny used the Fine Gael Ard Fheis to announce a Cabinet sub-committee to crack the whip on mortgage arrears, while acknowledging that after a year in government it remained a serious problem for families. And a proposed new personal insolvency bill to help people work through their debts is due to be published by the end of this month. Its provisions include "out of court" settlements, allowing them to write off debts from €20,000 to €3m with the agreement of creditors.

On the front line of the personal debt crisis, ordinary people in all sorts of debt are fighting individual battles with their lenders, waiting for a lifeline.

Caroline Lennon Nally, a public servant who is fast sinking into mortgage arrears, is one of those still waiting for a tangible helping hand from the State. "I'd love to see something happening. All we have seen is a lot of talk," she said this weekend.

She bought her home for €385,000 in 2007, and has since invested €150,000 in it between mortgage repayments and stamp duty. She can no longer afford her €1,470 repayments since pay cuts and levies cut her income by €1,500 a month. A year ago, she offered to repay a sizeable sum to her lender but the bank refused to accept it. A financial adviser helped her come up other repayment proposals, but those too have been rejected. "I'm exhausted at the moment in that I really don't seem to be making any progress with my lender," she said. "I actively pursued my lender before I ever got into difficulties, knowing what was coming down the tracks, and it is just like banging my head against a brick wall."

She knows she isn't as badly off as others. She has no outstanding loans, other than her mortgage, and is employed. "I have a good job. I am in a position to deal with them (the lender) in a meaningful way . . . They haven't moved towards legal action yet because I am dealing with them continually," she said. "But everything they are proposing will result in my home being repossessed."

Caroline believes there is strength in numbers. She founded Irish Home Owners United, a lobby group for troubled mortgage holders, last year. "What I have found to date is that because there is a big level of shame, people tend to shy away when it comes to putting their names out there."

John, 61, is one of them. He lives in a house saddled with a €186,000 debt in West Dublin, and he and his wife outwardly pretend to the neighbours that all is well while privately living in near poverty.

He left his local authority job when he became ill in 2005 and he survives on a pension, and his wife is on an invalid's pension of €186. He "built up the courage" to go the Money Advice and Budgeting Service and renegotiated the repayments down from €1,800 a month to €1,200.

His pension pays the mortgage; his wife's goes on the utility bills and shopping. "It's like living on the Titanic. You never know when it's going to sink," said John. "Like most couples out there, any savings were used up on the hope that things would change."

Selling the house is a last resort -- and if it should happen, he said, it will be the bank's decision, not his.

"We don't have anything. We don't have life outside the house. Even today I had to cancel my life assurance policy because I can no longer afford that. We shop around for whatever food bargains we can get. As I speak to you we have €10 between the two of us.

"Like most people in my situation, we live in secrecy. We don't tell anyone we are in mortgage arrears. We keep it fairly much to ourselves. The neighbours don't know and for their sake and even the wider family, we keep up a front."

He has been avidly following the Government's proposals: "Nothing concrete has come out at the moment. I would . . . be hoping beyond hope that there is some sort of help coming our way."

Sunday Independent