Who will put our house(s) in order?

A sales sign at the Bru na Sionna estate, where owners will have to pay €4m to bring their homes up to a proper fire safety standard. Picture: Eamon Ward

DON’T you just love those ads on TV that fill you with that warm, fuzzy feeling about life and love? The ones in which the camera follows individuals, couples, or families along the arc of life, while the background music plays soft and low.

There are moving shots of the various rituals: A school concert, a wedding, a retirement do, a couple hunting for furniture for their new nest. There are tears and laughter and hints of love: Romantic love, parental love, the love for your fellow man and woman, the love of life.

As the narrative sucks you in, you begin to wonder: What is being advertised here? What product can credibly be flogged on the back of this warm, fuzzy feeling? Is it something celestial? Would it be possible to actually buy a guardian angel to accompany you on the journey of life? Then, reality bites and the product is dropped onto the screen like a stink bomb at a party. A bank. All this for a bank. What possible connection could a bank have with all that is good and true in life?

Banks were one of the principal elements in the economic collapse. They have been reviled by the public, with good reason. Greed, recklessness, duplicity, theft, and corporate thuggery all come to mind when we think of banks.

Yet, here they are, in our post-ironic age, telling you that living in harmony is best-achieved if you let a little banking into your life.

The banks aren’t the only ones partying like it’s pre-2008. Many developers have rinsed out their debts, brushed themselves down, and launched themselves into another bout of nation-building. Bertie Ahern, the architect of the Celtic Baboon, is all over the airwaves, dispensing wisdom and advice. (Dig- outs? Winning it on the horses? Tribunal evidence under oath? That stuff is so yesterday.)

In Cheltenham this week, it was all retro bling. The Irish Times quoted two 23-year-old Irishmen.

“Brian Cowen is back. Bertie Ahern is back, we are all back. AIB shares will be going up,” one hoarsely proclaimed from the winner’s enclosure.

His pal added: “We will have to buy apartments again in Bulgaria.”

These lads were in short pants the last time apartments were being bought in Bulgaria. Horse manure is back.

Yet, despite all the good-time bonhomie, there has to be a party pooper, that spoilsport whose presence ensures the past won’t toddle off and die. Banks have been deloused, developers showered free of debts, and politicians restored to a public pedestal. Only the poor sops used to build the original edifice are left living in the past.

These are the occupants of the dodgy apartments that were thrown up at a time when throwing up dodgy stuff was all the rage. During the years of the Celtic Baboon, the banks were lending pots of money; the developers were making money hand over fist; and the State was busy looking the other way, in case anything went wrong. In such circumstances, it was inevitable that corners would be cut, work would be shoddy, and lives would be placed in danger.

For the last four years, this newspaper has been documenting the plight of thousands who have discovered their homes are defective and dangerous. Fire safety is the prime concern. Millions of euro are now being shelled out for remedial work. Home-owners, most of them on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, are trapped in homes that are dangerous, yet they are unable to leave, because there is nowhere to go, and nobody will buy their dodgy homes.

Take one of the more recent examples: Bru Na Sionna, in Shannon. The homeowners in the 240-unit development found out, earlier this month, that they will now have to pay nearly double the original estimate to bring their homes up to a proper fire-safety standard. Instead of costing €2.25m, it will now cost over €4m, and counting. Since the defects were discovered last year, the development has been patrolled 24/7 by fire marshals, whose brief is to evacuate the place in the event of fire.

The development company, which was a vehicle to construct Bru Na Sionna, is no longer in business. Therefore, nobody is responsible for anything to do with recklessly placing lives in danger or flogging defective homes. As with many other instances, the principal of the now-defunct company has moved onto pastures new, back in the nation-building game under a different guise.

The homeowners are not living the dream, as depicted in those warm, fuzzy adds on TV. Maybe they should call on a warm, fuzzy bank to accompany them on the journey of life. Sorry. All the reports are that banks simply will not provide mortgages for homes in Bru Na Sionna. (Units for sale are advertised as ideal ‘investment’ properties, which roughly translates as ‘cash sale’.) Too much uncertainty for the banks. Too much risk.

In fact, some homeowners have attempted to get loans from banks just to cover their bill for the remedial work. No go. ‘Take your dreams and deposit them where the sun don’t shine’ appears to be the message from these warm, fuzzy institutions. These homeowners, pesky reminders of the past, represent the embarrassing, drunken uncle at a wedding, as far as the banks are concerned.

Today’s politicians also consider the past to be a different country. On March 5, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy told the Dáil that defective and dangerous homes weren’t his problem.

“It’s difficult to see one (a redress scheme of sorts for those affected) that doesn’t take on this massive, open-ended liability on every other taxpayer in the State that the State simply couldn’t meet,” he said.

Mr Murphy has a myopic view of both the State’s propensity to give a dig-out and its responsibility to citizens. His words on any redress scheme could equally have been applied to the banks’ debt pre-2008 guarantee. And look how that turned out. There is a basic imperative behind any efforts to get the Government to address this scandal. Citizens — for the vast majority of them, the bling was little more than a rumour — believed they were living in a developed country. They believed that the biggest decision in their economic lives — to buy a home — was protected by the State.

They believed that rules and safety and fire regulations would be policed by the State during construction. They certainly didn’t know that, during the years of the building boom, there were more dog inspectors than building inspectors.

Their plight now deserves serious consideration. The Government response has been to keep the head down and hope that, in time, they will melt off into the past, where they belong. Only with sustained and organised pressure will that stance change and some basic justice be achieved for these casualties of the Celtic Baboon.

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