Wednesday 23 October 2019

Eoghan Harris: Talk to Joe, my brother, about debt -- and survival

Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

'I remember I put a rope around my neck one day, just to test it out, just to see would I be able to do it. I had been in debt for six months. I couldn't physically function."

The speaker was my brother Joe. He was talking to Neil Prendeville on Cork's 96FM, following up an article he had written in the Douglas Post about losing his business, his marriage, his sense of self, to the point of planning suicide.

Joe comes in the middle of our family of nine brothers and sisters. He has dark good looks, blazing blue eyes, enormous emotional empathy, endless good humour, and is naturally numerate. These gifts made him the best cold-call insurance salesman in Cork.

Joe worked for 20 years as a PAYE employee, moving between the big companies. But he always wanted to be his own boss. Ten years ago he set up as an auctioneer and climbed aboard the Celtic Tiger.

Joe rode it hard, right up to the recession. He created 30 jobs, had an annual wage bill of over a million, paid his taxes, opened five offices, branched out into outlets like local newspapers. But his personal lifestyle stayed modest. He gave generously to charity, was active in the GAA, and was a pillar of his local community.

Although we are cradle Roman Catholics, my family has a Calvinist code of personal honour. So when the property bubble burst, Joe looked after his creditors. He and the banks took the hit for three million.

Joe was hurt badly. Being self-employed, he couldn't sign on welfare. His 20 years as a PAYE worker counted for nothing by way of benefit. He had to pocket his pride and go to St Vincent de Paul.

His marriage broke down under the burden. Like all entrepreneurs, he was a control freak. But now he had no control. He suffered a total breakdown that brought him to bed for six months.

Last Thursday, he told Neil Prendeville how it felt to be that helpless. "It was like watching a car crash in slow motion. You're in the car, and you can't stop it, but you can see it coming."

Prendeville put the hard question. "You were of that profession who drove on the Celtic Tiger, drove prices up, took big commissions, lived the flash lifestyle, had the best of it; people would say, why feel sorry for people like that?"

But Joe resisted the temptation to present himself as some kind of

victim when he was also a perpetrator - as Mick Wallace did on RTE's "Money, Money, Money" programme last week. He dealt with the question dispassionately.

"I take responsibility. I over-extended myself. Maybe there was a bit of an ego trip involved as well. But you're in a situation, you're trying to make a living, you're trying to expand your business."

Prendeville, who survived his own dark night of the soul, asked him when he reached rock bottom. "I remember standing in the South Mall, looking up and down, saying, God Almighty, what do I do now?"

What Joe did was get out of bed. He trawled for help among family and friends. Along the hard road to recovering his self-respect he learned a lot about the personal psychology of debt.

These lessons did not go to waste when he went back selling insurance door-to-door. Few people want insurance in a recession. But they did want to talk about being in debt. Joe frequently found himself trying to sort out their situation.

So much so that finally he set up MADS (the Money And Debt advice centre). A totally free service which functions seven days a week, from 9 in the morning to 9 at night. Joe runs it on his own. So why does he do it? "Maybe I'm hoping to make a small contribution, to make up for my ego trip in the previous number of years."

He thinks it can make a difference. "When you give people a road map, you can almost see them physically change in front of you."

Prendeville wrapped up by asking Joe how he was fixed for Christmas. I could almost see his sardonic grin. "I have a turkey." He paused to count his blessings. "To be honest I am just glad to be around the place, to have my children, to be on the planet."

As soon as Joe went off the air, the phones started hopping. Not just about what he had to say. About the way we divide up our social wealth. As I listened I realised how little we hear of the real world on RTE radio.

Prendeville pulls no punches. There is none of RTE's radical-chic restraint in condemning abuse of social welfare, none of RTE's protective pussyfooting around the fat cats of the civil service, no Labour Party ring of steel around the Cardiff class, no pious platitudes about what a wonderful job they are all doing in the public sector.

Leo calls to excoriate the massive exodus of teachers in the New Year. They are walking out on their pupils to avail of a pension based on their 2009 salary. And to get lump-sum payments ranging from €130,000 to €200,000. And they can go back to their jobs as substitutes.

A woman who sounds like a northsider calls to worry the bone of the surreal entitlements of ministers and TDs.

"They're all up there with their fine big fat salaries, the country is broke and they're giving them three-and-a-half thousand to do their washing and dry-cleaning. Why don't they wash their own bloody shirts?"

Meantime, Prendeville continues to count Kevin Cardiff's money, in a way RTE is too refined to do. "Cardiff will get €240,000 basic salary. He will get €40,000 location expenses. He will get a yearly allowance of €41,000. That's €330,000 a year."

But the woman has moved on to why TDs have a safety net no matter what. "If you lost your TD's job in the morning, why should you draw your pension when anybody else that loses their job anywhere else has to sign on the dole?"

To which I say, why indeed? Why provide a strong safety net of high salaries, permanent employment and padded pensions for the minority public-sector class -- but no net, 50 per cent less salary, no permanency, and no pensions for most workers in the majority private sector?

The Government gets away with it because of the awful opposition. Which, like all parties in the Dail, only looks after the public sector. A private-sector entrepreneur like Joe is what 'socialists' like Joe Higgins would call a capitalist.

It's true Joe believes in business. He created jobs when he could. He paid his taxes. He never took anything back from the State. When his business went bust, he took the blow.

Conversely, Higgins is what Joe would call a public-sector parasite, drawing a Dail salary (which includes allowances for his laundry), who from his permanent and pensionable public-sector perch proposes to lead a workers' revolution.

Joe thinks that's a joke. So do I. Neither of us find it that funny.

MADS can be contacted at or telephone (087) 112 3443

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