Hounded borrowers - Urgent action is needed

THE Irish Bankers’ Federation was absolutely right when it described as “emotive” the claim by the Master of the High Court Edmund Honohan that banks were driving debt-ridden borrowers to suicide.

Given the countrywide crisis of personal indebtedness, Mr Honohan had every right to use emotive language. This is a highly emotive issue. As he succinctly put it, he has met the widows of people driven to take their own lives over relatively small debts.

Few people are better placed to speak with authority on the dire situation confronting borrowers hounded by the banks. If his intention was to shock the system out of complacency, judging by the public reaction and the furore in the Dáil yesterday, he has succeeded.

For the banks to accuse him of using inflammatory language and to argue that relatively few cases were before the courts is disingenuous. As the latest tally shows, some 70,000 homeowners are in mortgage arrears. Despite the moratorium, since it can take up to two years to process a case, a virtual avalanche of misery is heading for the courts. To be fair, the banks have agreed fresh repayment arrangements with many distressed homeowners. However, the harsh realities outlined by such organisations as the Console Group and New Beginning corroborate the claim that financial institutions are continuing to put people under severe pressure.

Rather than criticism, Edmund Honohan should receive praise. Effectively, he has exposed the financial institutions by highlighting the fact that the pursuit of people to the bitter end was merely part of an accountancy exercise to write off debts for tax relief. No amount of spin can detract from his timely warning that such actions are leading to social disquiet and driving some people to suicide.

The bitter irony is that the very banks accused of hounding those unable to repay their debts are themselves being bailed out by every man, woman and child in the country. That’s the appalling price the Irish people are paying for the policies of greed pursued by reckless bankers, avaricious developers and feckless politicians of the last government. The resulting crisis has cost Ireland’s fiscal sovereignty, left the economy in tatters and inflamed fears of national bankruptcy.

Worried borrowers and mortgage-holders in arrears are in the grip of despair and hopelessness. With 400,000 people unemployed and uncertain of the future, more decisive action is needed to support families in trouble. The deadline of 2012 set by the Government for new legislation on personal insolvency will come too late for many now under relentless financial pressure. A greater sense of urgency is called for. The promised “interim measures” to ease the burden on distressed debtors must be fast-tracked.

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