Dying to beat the recession

While economist Morgan Kelly may view Patrick Honohan, Governor of the Central Bank, as engaging in the “costliest mistake ever made by an Irish person”, the brother Edmund, Master of the High Court, recently highlighted a cost much greater, and one which cannot be righted by a thousand bailouts. Ireland’s recession, and the resultant pursuance of those in debt as a result of it by the banks and other lending institutions “to the bitter end” is causing some to take their own lives; a tragedy which will only get worse if left unchecked.

Never before have so many been affected by a recession in this country. While the lower classes will always be hit the hardest, no one has been spared this time around, and never before have so many sections of society been tied down with such enormous debt. While there are those who may feel that the Celtic Tiger roared by them at the time, never getting to share in the benefits it afforded many, those who gained significantly, and subsequently lost, are equally, if not more at risk from the comedown after the artificial high.

Ireland has always suffered from a disproportionately high level of suicide in comparison to other countries, with young males being especially susceptible. Despite our increase in wealth and greater ability to distract ourselves during the boom time, this problem never went away. Now that the money has run out and the realisation has hit many that the only thing they ever truly owned was their debt, things are getting worse, with our national rate of suicide rising by a quarter over the last three years.

Recent statistics released from the Central Bank shows that nearly 50,000 residential mortgages are now in arrears of 90 days or greater. While this number does not equate to 50,000 families affected, due to some having multiple properties, this remains a worryingly large number. The fact that some households now have multiple mortgages that they cannot repay acts as an almost unbelievable reminder to a time when people who would never have dreamt of owning more than one property started to collect them like kiddies’ football cards, having gotten caught up in the buzzword that was the property “portfolio”.

The emotional turmoil and distress suffered by many in this situation starts long before the first mortgage payment is missed. When the boom ended and negative equity reared its ugly head, the struggle to keep their heads above water began. Bills were still being paid, just, as discretionary expenditure became a thing of the past. Treading water for so long soon grows tiresome, however. Then came the dreaded day when the financial calculations no longer added up, and mortgage payments started to be missed. It is at this time, when already at their lowest ebb, that the banks typically step in.

The Central Bank’s revised code of conduct on mortgage arrears, which came into effect in January of this year, requires lenders to work with those in trouble. According to the Central Bank’s director of consumer protection, Bernard Sheridan, a manageable and sustainable solution can be agreed “where appropriate”. It is these two words that are of great cause for concern, for the failure to help those who are struggling can leave those same people feeling like they have run out of options. Who within the banking institutions are qualified enough to determine the emotional wounds which have been inflicted on those whom they pursue? Who can determine the tipping point at which some debtors can no longer grin and bear it, and can no longer accept the complicity that Brian Lenihans’ idiotic idiom that “We All Partied” implies?

While the chief executive of the Irish Banking Federation, Pat Farrell, accused Edmund Honohan of being too emotive in his description of those who commit suicide under the burden of debt, is it not emotion and compassion that is in too short a supply? The harsh reality is that this time next year there are a number of social welfare and jobseeker allowance payments which will no longer be made. Not because the recipient has managed to “validate” themselves in the eyes of our government and banks by no longer taking but once again contributing through finding work, and not because they have resigned themselves to emigration in order to keep the ember than remains of their hopes and dreams from being extinguished completely. Instead, these payments will remain uncollected because at some point their recipients decided that they had been squeezed just that little bit too much, and that the Ireland of 2011 had not given them an out.

While our economists will continue to debate if the property and financial crisis could have been spotted earlier, Ireland’s crisis should come as a surprise to no one. As long ago as 2009, President Mary McAleese underlined the need to invest in suicide prevention programmes to help those for whom unemployment and debt were taking their toll. Having already heard ad nauseam of the political blame games in Leinster House, of pension levies and the banking big wigs who “escaped”, the level to which ordinary working people have been affected on an emotional level by the crisis still remains largely unreported, and infinitely worse, unresolved.

In 2007, then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern displayed our nation’s laissez faire attitude towards suicide and its prevention as he spoke about those who expressed doubt regarding the future of our economy, saying “I don’t know how people who engage in that don’t commit suicide”. Four years on, we need to remember that our greatest asset is, and always has been, our people. The citizens of this Republic must be protected at all costs, for they are truly priceless.

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