What is behind the current media-fuelled hysteria around the trumped-up topic of debt forgiveness?
Last Thursday The Irish Times published a letter from an MP MacDomhnaill of Tralee, which is pasted below:
A NEW TORMENT - HUNGER
Sir, – As I write this letter I am hoping that sleep can provide me with some escape from the anxiety and pain that the economic situation is wreaking on me and my family.
Until recently I have been able to meet my mortgage repayments and provide for my young children. At this juncture, seeing as the part-time work on which I depended has entirely ceased, I have found myself and my loved ones having to cope with a new torment – hunger.
Today I have had nothing to give my children only bread and cereal. My dole payment is completely servicing my mortgage and my savings have run dry on essentials. I dread what each day will bring.
The wolf that I have been keeping from the door has finally moved in. – Yours, etc.
Then on Friday, the same paper carried a piece by Rosita Boland, featuring extracts from a telephone interview with the letter writer, in which he described how his wife noticed one of the children was reduced to eating bits of (Lidl brand) Cornflakes packet in order to stave off the hunger.
Sorry, but I can't swallow this - no more than I would some bargain brand cereal packaging.
The idea of hunger and famine is a recurring one in Irish discourse, and the image of a child eating bits of cardboard to stay alive, in order for mum and dad to pay the mortgage, is one that will wring many a tear from the uncritical folkish eye. It is the hungry grass all over again, with the prospect of eviction (read repossession) thrown in. It is like a Flann O'Brien parody.
There is no reason why anyone who lost their job should be paying all of their mortgage payments to go without food. As far as I am aware, there are mortgage interest supplements for people in such a position, and the banks have been readily restructuring mortgage repayments for some years now.
Conor Pope, in the same edition of the paper as Boland's piece, made the observation that many of the "new poor are resolutely middle-class" and might find the idea of looking for help or advice in the shape of the Money Advice and Budgeting Service "a degrading step and one which is beyond them".
But to read yesterday's alarmist articles in the Sunday Independent you would swear that starving families are being turfed out of their homes all over the country, with the residue of cardboard-tainted saliva encrusted on the mouths of their ragged children.
This is simply not happening. Even last Wednesday's Irish Times editorial pointed out that "there is abundant evidence that debtors and creditors are themselves working problems out on a case by case basis" and the number of home repossessions in Ireland "remains small in absolute terms or in comparison to Britain, where economic conditions are far more benign than here".
Ironically, much of the current debate was triggered by Morgan Kelly's recent comments on former high-rollers who took out unsustainable mortgages of one and more million euro. Professionals who "could barely afford to buy you a cup of coffee now".
Given the way things work in Ireland, and how those from the more privileged classes always come up smelling of roses - even after enduring a temporary dip in the manure - one wonders are these the movers and shakers fueling the media agenda?
Not so much starving kiddies as dentists, architects and, erm, perhaps journalists, who took out silly loans during the property boom madness and are now - horror of horrors - in negative equity?
Sure. They can have debt forgiveness if they are prepared to walk away from their aspirational properties and hand in the keys - otherwise it should be a matter of renegotiating terms with their lenders. The same should apply to their buy-to-let portfolios.
Meanwhile genuine cases - such as ordinary people down on their luck and making an effort to pay something back - should be afforded the necessary latitude to restructure. Which is exactly what is happening at present.
Blanket "debt forgiveness" should not be a facility for those who can pay, but won't, to wriggle out of their commitments - while keeping the assets they outbid the rest of us on as they pushed prices skywards during the boom.
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