The year the plan expired

Life is full of moments. This is one now and that was one then. If you walked into that Dublin hotel you could, as a non-privy spectator, have mistaken it for a wedding reception, such was the crowd. The same crowd that could confuse would also, on closer inspection, give the game away. The colours were all wrong.

Dark shades and black ties had won out. Hands were busy, holding either hot drinks or each other, offering a consoling hand on the shoulder or a hug to those who needed something more. Caffeine trumped alcohol as we talked with family and friends, reminiscing about my father, whose funeral had been that morning.

2007 had an awful lot to answer for.

With a breaking heart and a muddled brain my phone rang, and I answered it. I excused myself and confirmed it. As planned, the phone line would be connected tomorrow. No ifs or buts. And no father. He had visited the busy construction site before and we pointed out the place we believed to be ours. I hope he saw the one we meant. I know he felt our excitement.

The year could not, would not, end this way.

We finally had our keys and, after two years, couldn’t wait a minute longer to move in. Our relationship was going from strength to strength. Our subsequent desire to make a ‘grown-up’ decision was to put us in the company of thousands of others – not of developers, or investors, but of couples in love who wanted nothing more than the opportunity to turn a house into a home, our home.

In the five years that passed, it never became that to me. I couldn’t bring myself to let it.

The property crash, and the gradual realisation that we were to become a statistic in the mess and little more, led to a deep inward resentment. It goes without saying that I, like many many others, did not see the crash coming. There are plenty who will say that they did, but had they been of a certain age, means and motive, would have done similar. They now have hindsight, without the bittersweet aftertaste, and can rewrite their own personal history as they see fit.

The truth be told, we did our best to be pragmatic, making sure to stick below the €317,500 in order to avoid paying stamp duty. That additional outlay is now but a small percentage of what we owe, which will never be recouped by what we own.

Watching things pan out in a way you never expected, with each twist and turn making it painfully clear how little control we have over this situation has proven to be gut wrenching and too often, gut wrenching on a daily basis. The five-year plans of many homeowners have by this stage fallen by the wayside.

2012 was our expiration date.

Wearing the now tattered and ill-fitting clothing that is negative equity does little to compliment the outfit that is our life in 2013, and what it has become. The term ‘long-term’ has for too long held only negative connotations for me. My imagination, vivid as it is, would struggle to visualise a different property in our future, the property that would become our real house, the one that would allow for pet ownership, better amenities and a shorter commute.

Thankfully, the starting of a family, whenever that will happen and however it’ll be funded, is considered a compromise too far by both of us. There will come a point, however, when space, or the lack of it where we are, may come to play a part in that as well.

By virtue of the things this real house would allow for, it couldn’t but become a home.

Couldn’t it?

As a journalist I spend a great deal of each day being objective. My own inner newsreel does not benefit from any such objectivity, however, when thoughts of signing on the dotted line 2005 are replayed. No balance. Just bias. And let’s not forget the misplaced self-criticism at not being able to foresee what the future would hold.

In the years that have passed, life has gone on in this house. Ten birthdays and six Christmases have been celebrated here. Having never missed a mortgage payment and with two incomes (for now), we remain the lucky ones. There are those who can no longer afford their mortgage repayments, those whose homes have been effected by pyrite, and those from Priory Hall who remain in limbo.

I can only write about my reality, however, and the reality is that holding onto that five-year plan and watching it count down to zero was a waste of time and energy. When everything had changed but the self-imposed deadline which justified the purchase, simple math rendered our best intentions redundant.

It’s time for a new plan.

What is common to us all, regardless of our financial burdens – past, present, or future – is that each of us remain in possession of something that has never dropped in value, and never will.

If you’re still struggling with your New Year’s resolution for 2013 and, more importantly, if you find yourself struggling in general, adopt the one that I should have adopted in 2009 – the one that I am adopting now.

Be a better friend to yourself.

Feel the fear, do it anyway, but accept yourself – always and without condition. Be your own best friend and safeguard the only thing you will ever own that is truly priceless.

It’s time I made this house my home.

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Images from ‘New Documents’ photographic exhibition now online

Hi all,

For those of you who weren’t able to make the gallery exhibition in June, a selection of the images I had taken of Dublin’s pawnbrokers are now available as part of an article which I have written for TheJournal.ie – ‘In pics: Hidden Ireland – Dublin’s pawnbrokers’ is available to read here.

Cheers,
Paul

Making ability count

As he nears the end of his three year degree in Social Science, Alan Sheehan is as aware as any other graduate to the challenges facing him. “I’m not ruling anything out, and I’m not ruling anything in,” he states with a mixture of positivity and trepidation. The careers event I meet him at has employers from companies such as Citi, Google and Bank of Ireland in attendance, and Alan is looking forward to seeing what is on offer. More importantly, he is eager to know what will be expected of new graduates such as himself.

Alan knows that these companies will be expecting nothing less than 100% from applicants. A tough jobs market guarantees it. He knows that he can give them what they need, however, for the simple reason that he’s used to giving 100%. Sitting next to Alan is his educational assistant, who rarely leaves his side. Our canteen table allows plenty of room for the wheelchair that Alan has been confined to his entire life.

The career event is organised by the Association for Higher Education Access & Disability (AHEAD). Their Assistant Director, Mary Quirke – a nurse, turned midwife, turned career guidance counsellor – knows the additional challenges facing graduates such as Alan. The first hurdle is the way in which they disclose their disability to the employer.

Tackling this in a positive manner is half the battle, says Mary. “One person can go in and sit in front of an employer and say ‘I have a visual impairment’ and somebody else can go in and say ‘by the way I can do the job but I will need this technology on my computer because I have a visual impairment’, and after that it’s fine.” Once in the door and doing the job, Mary’s experience of employees with disabilities has been overwhelmingly positive. “If things are going fine, nobody sees it anymore,” she says.

Disclosure is one thing, but how can you disclose something that hasn’t been diagnosed. This was the case with Alan’s other disability, dyslexia, which very nearly ruined his chances of reaching third level. In primary school his teachers viewed him as “just being one of those kids that you can’t do anything about.” Things weren’t much better in secondary school, until his English and History teacher spotted his intelligence and ambition, finally seeing him as someone who wasn’t just “hanging about trying to pass his day.”

Completing his Junior Cert at 18, his college plans were dealt a further blow when his school informed him that they had no Leaving Cert programme in place for people with disabilities. “We do now; I’ll be back in September” was Alan’s response to his principle. While acutely aware of his disabilities, Alan knows what he needs to do to succeed. “I’m not a genius but I work very very hard, and that’s the key point of being disabled as I see it. I don’t focus on my disabilities, I focus on my abilities.”

Despite Alan’s perseverance and pending graduation, he now finds himself caught up in a problem that even he himself can’t control – our economy. While Ireland’s public sector ensures that those with disabilities comprise at least 3% of its workforce, the private sector has no such obligation, and competition is fierce. It is in times such as these, however, that Mary believes that companies look to the “big thinkers and creative thinkers.” This, in turn, can provide opportunities for those with disabilities to shine as they are “used to finding solutions to problems for themselves.”

Sometimes the biggest solution is to change your outlook, something which Alan is all too aware of. “One has to ponder the definition of disability,” he says. “I’m disabled, but I don’t wake up every morning going ‘Oh Jesus I’m disabled, I can’t do anything.’ That’s not part of my thinking and never has been.” Always positive, Alan believes that Ireland’s support structures, such as the Disability Support Service in University College Cork, has taken him from “being a disabled person to a person with a disability. That is a big transformation.”

Being a person with a disability, however, can still prove limiting. While the option of last resort for many who can’t find work in Ireland is to emigrate, it’s hard not to imagine that the physical and support needs of those with a disability make this option infinitely more difficult. In this respect Alan feels that he is “very lucky” that his “disabilities are very mild in comparison with others.”

Having fought hard to get to a position that many others take for granted, Alan has no plans on throwing it all away now. “I have responsibilities now not only to myself but to others, and I will do what I need to do,” he says. “If that means emigrating, that’s what I will consider.”

Hearing Alan speak, one can’t help but wonder what the long term effects of the Government cuts will have on those with disabilities. Between the reductions in Special Needs Assistants and the proposed cap on student numbers at third-level, it’s difficult to imagine that the number of graduates with disabilities will increase. Despite these very real fears, Mary still hopes that the opportunities will continue to present themselves. “If you go out and you do something well, it will work out,” she says.

While still believing that “as long as there are people with disabilities, there will be graduates with disabilities,” Alan is worried. “As a country, as a community, and as a people, we cannot stand back and say ‘Ok job done, this is as far as we can take this particular group of people’.”

Role models play an important part in all walks of life, and for people with disabilities, it is no different. To see people who have had to overcome similar challenges and succeed is heartening to all. Looking to famous dyslexics such as Cher and Tom Cruise, Alan is quick to credit their role. “This is why I’m positive, because there are people like that and they achieve what they achieve,” he says.

My conversation with Alan has come to an end. Mentioning that today is his 29th birthday, he ponders as to what his 30th will bring. When I mention that perhaps he will be 30 with a Masters qualification, his response is far more modest. “Or even better, 30 with a job,” he says. Having said my goodbyes, I can’t help but feel that Alan won’t have a problem getting what he wants. After all, he has spent his entire life showing what employers have always looked for – recession or otherwise.

Alan has shown his ability.

The PIGS!

Who put the ‘I’ in PIGS? We, the Irish did – along with Italy, apparently. As one of the more insensitive acronyms to come about as part of the financial crisis, Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain have found themselves in the trough together, sniffing desperately for the truffles that will lift them out of the mess in which they find themselves. In the meantime, however, perhaps us swine can help make each other’s lives more bearable until we strike gold?

In an unfortunate case of life imitating art, or more accurately, an iPhone app, the walls around us are beginning to cave in, as the Angry Birds of Europe and further afield are hell bent on our total destruction. Far from wanting to huff, and puff, and blow our houses down, the wolf in the modern day version of the Three Little Pigs (the fourth one doesn’t pay any rent and therefore isn’t officially listed) is more concerned with repossession. And what are we pigs managing to do about it – little more than to survive by the hair on our chiny chin chins.

But no more I say! Us pigs must formulate a plan, and work together to see it through. While we Irish had, for many years, demonstrated great foresight in trying our best to keep the economies of Portugal, Greece, and Spain afloat as part of our annual search for the sun, the Celtic Tiger gave us the gall to want more. No longer content with San Miguel, Linekers Bar, and headaches by the pool, the words “budget”, “package”, and “holiday” found themselves in fewer and fewer sentences uttered by the “new” Irish.

As the snowboarding and scuba-diving equipment from holidays past gather dust in the attics of homes throughout Ireland, us pigs need to band together, and create holidays for each other “on the cheap”. We need to open our homes to our struggling European neighbours, ensuring they have a holiday that they will never forget. And what should this new venture be called? “When Pigs Fly”, of course!

I can see it now! For a fee not much greater than one of those “special price” watches we Irish bought many a time in P, G, or S; visitors to our shores can enjoy such Irish delicacies as boiled pig’s feet, washed down by our finest Poitín. This homemade paint stripper of a drink will not only cleanse the palette of the taste of trotter by stripping a layer of skin clean off the inside of the mouth, it will also render our visitors incoherent and comatose until the plane comes to take them home. Cost of holiday – €10 plus flights and medical bills.

Our Portuguese neighbours could repay the favour with their own budget dalliance. For an ultra low price, the Irish traveller can be dropped into the countries capital, Lisbon, where they can learn firsthand what it is to protest against government. For the particularly budget conscious traveller, accommodation can be booked via the Portuguese Police. Cost of holiday – €10 plus flights, solicitor fees, and a notebook and pen.

Greece can put together a nice island hopping package, which skimps on costs by having visitors swim between them. Long periods in the water will not only improve fitness considerably, but will increase the chance of catching some fish, thus reducing the food bill significantly. Cost of holiday – €5 plus flights and a fishing net.

Last but not least, Spain can offer the festival feeling of Oxygen or Electric Picnic to Irish visitors at a fraction of the cost, and with considerably less music. With little more than a tent and a healthy dose of patience, visitors can experience firsthand what it is to be an “Indignant One” by camping out for long periods of time until something happens. Cost of holiday – €5 plus flights, tent, and a good book.

So there we have it! Being one of the PIGS doesn’t mean that you have to go without a holiday this year, it just means you’ll have to do without all the unnecessary nonsense associated with holidays of old, such as having a good time and enjoying a safe return. Mine’s a San Miguel! Cheers!

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.

Sorry Ma’am, but Queen there, done that…

NOTE: A recent assignment as part of my journalism course required me to write a piece which offered an opinion which I didn’t believe. To this end, I wrote as convincing an argument as I could muster for why the Queen of England should not visit Ireland. Below is the vitriolic result. Enjoy!

May is going to be a particularly expensive month for the Irish exchequer as both Queen Elizabeth and Barack Obama pay visit to our penniless shores. While I will be the first to extend a céad míle fáilte to the US President, the undoubted leader of the free world, I would be tempted to utter a less flattering Irish phrase to Britain’s monarch.

At a time when we can least afford it, our country will have to outlay approximately €25 million for the pleasure, the majority of which will go towards protecting the Queen, whose 4 days in the Republic smacks of an elderly relative who overstays their welcome. While Joe Higgins of the United Left Alliance may not get his wish that she pays towards her “bed and breakfast” at a time when Ireland is “figuratively, almost sleeping rough”, it should be noted that Barack Obama will only be on Irish soil for a period of hours. Why so short, I hear you ask? Because he actually has a job to get back to!

If our binning of the last Government has shown anything, it’s that Ireland has finally grown tired of useless figureheads which don’t actually do anything. In this regard, why splurge cash we don’t have on England’s equivalent, who recently had the gall to spend taxpayers’ money on the wedding of her grandson, at a time when England continues to deal with its own recession? On the same weekend as the she was happily spending other people’s money with reckless abandon, Barack Obama, our second VIP of the month, was ridding the world of one of its worse terrorists, and helping us all to sleep better at night.

It should, of course, be remembered that whatever the outlay for protecting these foreign dignitaries is, a healthy 5.8% should be added to the bill when we are to consider the real cost to us, the Irish taxpayer, as we are blowing the IMF’s money and not our own, which we are paying top dollar for. Having had to go crawling to the EU/IMF with our begging bowl few will argue that it could be put to better use than on protecting the ageing dinosaur that is the British monarchy.

While a clearly delusional Enda Kenny continues to tell anyone with ears that Ireland is open for business, the working classes continue to suffer. Having recently spotted a bunch of Gardaí hovering over a drain in the city centre, my initial thought was that they had finally been reduced to supplementing their much depleted incomes by searching for loose change. Instead, they were busy spending the majority of their annual budget on sealing manhole covers in preparation for our impending visitors.

While it is only right that the US President is protected from those who wish to cause him harm, especially in the light of his triumphant victory over Osama bin Laden, the arrival of Mrs. Windsor does nothing but expose her and our fellow countrymen and women to an otherwise avoidable threat. The RIRA and their ilk, with the blood of PSNI innocent Ronan Kerr still dripping from their hands, will have no problem adding a few “Free Staters” to their list of casualties if it means getting their shot at their perceived enemy.

While the Queens visit may bolster tourism to Ireland from the UK, we should be aware of the fallout between England and Ireland, should something happen during her time here. The level of anti-English sentiment that still exists in Ireland would leave the Irish government facing an uphill battle in convincing the British that they hadn’t colluded with the paramilitaries in much the same way that many believe the British did in times past.

If I could sum up my feelings for her visit to Ireland, it would be “Queen there, done that, we have bigger fish to fry!”

Rising up to the rising

As we commemorate those who died for what they did in 1916, have we as a nation forgotten what it is to stand up and be accountable for our actions?

Would the legacy of those who fought and died in the Easter Rising of 1916 still be as strong had they denied responsibility for their actions in the days that followed? What would we have thought if those who had led the rising, instead of standing up to be counted, stated that they were simply acting on behalf of the Irish people and, as a result, were no more or less guilty than anyone else?

Watching the commemoration of the Easter Rising yesterday, inexplicably absent from our state broadcasters’ schedule, organisations of whom we expect accountability and responsibility were to the fore. An Garda Síochána, safeguarding some 3,000 spectators who had converged on O’Connell Street, have a clearly defined rank structure and independent ombudsman to which their members are answerable. Similarly, the members of the Defence Forces who marched to the GPO operate under the strict enforcement of military discipline and accountability at every level.

All of this begs the question why we, as a people, hold some to such high standards, while allowing a more nonchalant attitude to develop toward others. Do we associate a more immediate danger with out of control batons and weapons than altered balance sheets and shady bank practices? As the country celebrated the 95th anniversary of the Easter Rising yesterday, will we be any closer to achieving accountability for the banking meltdown as we celebrate its centenary?

Less than a week after its publication, the only part of the Nyberg report that has stuck with me is its failure to name names. Its 156 pages may as well have been replaced with a reference to Brian Lenihans’ idiotic idiom that “We All Partied”. In doing so it has, in fact, brought nothing new to the party. The results of a poll in yesterdays Sunday Independent showed that 84 percent believe that Peter Nyberg was wrong not to name names. Unless this poll has a margin of error of 16 percent, I worry for the future of our country when a not insignificant percentage remain unconcerned with seeking out those who are culpable and seeing them brought to justice.

I am unaware as to any point in history when an entire country and its people have been deemed responsible for a given event. Even Holocaust survivors, having been subjected to horrific treatment at the hands of Germany, have never been as short-sighted as to blame all Germans. To do so would have been lazy and reprehensible. Yet the Nyberg report has done just this.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the collective responsibility that it alludes to, however, is that in the long run it ends up leaving no one responsible. The unfortunate thing is that it appears that we now want to simply move on, setting our sights on job creation and renegotiating the terms of our bailout package instead. While it’s hard to argue against the importance of this, this will not solve all our issues. Similar to a company that announces losses during a particularly bad news day in the hope that it will stay under the radar, those who are accountable for the mess live in hope that they will be given a free pass, having left everyone else too busy frantically chasing their tails trying to fix what they have broken.

At some point in our (distant) future, the banking crisis and the property crash will be things of the past, having been overcome by our pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and living through the harsh austerity measures placed upon us. It will only be then, when we are no longer caught up in the immediacy of wondering where our next meal is coming from, or who is going to pay for it, that we will finally get a chance to look back at what happened.

Unless we insist on accountability now, we will feel little consolation knowing that justice has not been served. Realisation of this will soon be followed by fear: the inconsolable fear that a lack of deterrents will have taught those who played with our futures nothing, and that this could happen again. If and when this happens, the lazy reports will once again conclude that we were all responsible. The difference is that this time they will have been correct.