Mercille On Monday


t4_-371666110Gorse Hill, Killiney, last week (top) and Dr Julien Mercille (above)


Dr Julien Mercille writes:

Since 2009, there have been 3,865 home repossessions in Ireland (1,114 were ordered by courts and 2,751 were voluntarily surrendered or abandoned).

Also, the Central Bank has just released new figures showing that there are still more than 100,000 homes in arrears, or 15% of mortgage accounts. The evidence suggests that banks will seize even more homes in the near future.

If an opinion poll was taken today asking Irish people, ‘Can you name one of those repossession cases?’, probably 95% would answer ‘the rich guy in Killiney whose Gorse Hill mansion Vincent Browne showed us on television… the one with a tennis court, swimming pool, stone lions, and a nice view on the Bay’.

The ‘rich guy’ is Brian O’Donnell, a solicitor and developer who not so long ago controlled a €1 billion property empire but went bankrupt in 2013.

When Bank of Ireland moved to seize his €7 million palatial house over an unpaid debt of €71.5 million, a group calling itself the New Land League tried to block the repossession.

It just so happens that the New Land League, set up in 2013, is led by Jerry Beades, who is also a developer and a former member of Fianna Fail’s National Executive who collaborated closely with Bertie Ahern in the not so distant past.

According to press reports, he also accumulated multi-million euro bank debts over which he has been in legal battles with the banks.

The media has paid so much attention to that story that by now we know a lot about the intricate details of the lives of the O’Donnells, Jerry Beades, Gorse Hill itself and the New Land League. Yesterday, in a long Sunday Independent front-page ‘Exclusive’, ‘first-ever’ interview, the children of the O’Donnells told their stories. And that passes for investigative journalism.

One issue is, why is the media so focused on this case, but not on the thousands of others who have or are at risk of losing their house?

For example, just as the Gorse Hill soap opera is unfolding, a Limerick father called Ger Lonergan who is undergoing treatment for cancer risks losing his home due to a mortgage debt of €32,000.

He became unable to make payments due to illness and was diagnosed a few months ago with cancer. Permanent TSB has asked for a possession order to seize the house in which he lives with his wife and two daughters. Mr Lonergan says he gets a disability payment of €78 a week.

Whatever the details of this specific case, it’s not hard to imagine many other similar ones in the country. And ‘imagine’ is the right word, since we haven’t heard much about them.

The reason is that our mass media is not representative of popular interests. It cares about those of the better off and the stories that concern them, but not so much about the conditions faced by ordinary people.

That’s why all newspapers have ‘Business’ and ‘Money’ sections, but no ‘Poverty’ or ‘Human rights’ or ‘Deprivation’ sections. There are ‘Sports’ and ‘Lifestyle’ or ‘Living’ sections, but those don’t challenge Ireland’s power structure or injustice (they’re just about shopping and entertainment), so they may be printed.

The same goes for sensationalist stories like Gorse Hill. Narrowing down the discussion to the swimming pool and the paintings in the house, while not making links or comparisons with ordinary people at risk of losing their homes saves the government and bankers some embarrassment over kicking out ordinary and sick people out of their homes.

Another effect is that whenever the important issues of repossessions, evictions and mortgage arrears are brought up in public discourse, the picture conveyed is one of arrogant rich people living in mansions and too stubborn to vacate their house that they bought thanks to property speculation during the housing bubble years.

Many of us will have little sympathy for such individuals and might even secretly cheer for the courts and banks to kick them out of their house.

The result is that issues of repossession and arrears are misrepresented and turned upside down, and thousands of people whose lives are directly affected by them will not receive the attention they deserve.

@JulienMercille is lecturer at UCD and the author of The Political Economy and Media Coverage of the European Economic Crisis: The Case of Ireland. He will provide evidence to the Banking Inquiry on the role of the media during the housing bubble years.

Related: Banks attempt to repossess 7,000-plus homes (irish Times)


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51 thoughts on “Mercille On Monday

  1. Mark Dennehy

    The reason is that our mass media is not representative of popular interests.

    No, it’s too focussed on popular interests.
    The problem is that it’s not focussed on the public interest.
    Two very different things.

    1. Richard

      Could you explain how they are two very different things? ‘Popular’ means ‘of the people’. ‘Public’ derives largely from the same root.

      1. bruce01

        Popular interest is usually somewhat more trivial or superficial than public interest which would reflect issues of greater merit and importance. Ie this one solicitors house on Gorse Hill is popular interest, the more complex issues behind repossession etc are of public interest, but as Mark correctly points out the bigger, more complex issues are not dealt with by our media, largely because you cannot quote twitter users on such matters.

        1. Richard

          Well, one thing is what is defined as popular interests by the media, and another thing is popular interests as such. ‘The public interest’ suggests something that is singular, pre-defined, and already agreed upon, whereas the interests of the population -popular interests- suggests that there may be conflicting and even contradictory interests at stake.

          To give one example: a very large number of people in Ireland are wage workers who depend on public services. But coverage of issues in the workplace in terms of pay, working conditions, discrimination, exploitation, and issues concerning what one might call ‘the social wage’ – access to health care, education, social welfare supports- is far outweighed by coverage of, for example, business and money.

          Indeed, cuts to health care, education and social welfare spending have been officially classified by the government legislation as ‘in the public interest’ – see the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Acts. Is there any example of a newspaper or media outlet that has opposed such things, or austerity more broadly, as *not* being in the public interest?

      2. Mark Dennehy

        It’s the difference between what the public is interested in and what the public interest is Richard.
        Or, to dumb it down, it’s the difference between boobies on page three of the sun, and a detailed report into circumstances surrounding the tendering for the Irish Water meter installation contract.

      3. dylad

        For instance- it’s not in the public interest to report daily on the hour on the case of the alleged killer of a childcare worker, but because it is a story which ties in with the whole 50 shades of grey crap, it is popular. Downmarket, it’s called.

    2. bisted

      …perhaps you should translate that into French just to ensure M. Mercille understands the nuance.

  2. Edie

    Ok I’ll bite … Dr Julien can repossess me any time etc etc
    That IS why there’s a pic included right?

  3. The bringer of facts

    So what is the “right” opinion I must have?

    Should there be an extra form that people sign when taking out a loan saying that they REALLY will pay it all back?

    Or should people in exceptional circumstances get a free house and all debt wiped out? Is bankruptcy already there for that or is this country somehow different to other western countries?

    1. Sinabhfuil

      But when you say “pay it all back”, TheBringer, what is the all you’re talking about?

      From today’s Examiner:

      (Sorry, I don’t know how to do bold or itals here, or to show that this is a quote, so I’ll just put it in quote marks)

      “In 1995, Ger took out a mortgage for IR£33,500 against his old family home to pay off debts. He had reduced the debt to Permanent TSB to €3,600 by 2007. However, due to unemployment he was unable to keep up payments and now finds himself owing €32,000 in arrears and interest payments.”

      1. JD

        I heard about that case… indefensible stance by a bailed out bank. How can a loan of 3000 rachet up to 30k in 6 years? It is unbelievable that govt presides over this..

      2. Markus

        to get to that figure he would have to be paying interest of around 35%. more to this than meets the eye I would suspect

        1. Uncle Fester

          Big time. Numbers don’t add up as presented here.

          Also 4 people in that household. Could one of them not have worked to clear the last tiny remaining bit on the loan?

      3. My Daddy is bigger than Yours

        you forgot those debts were owed to Revenue.

        A guy inherits a house mortgage free, needs to remortgage to back taxes owed to revenue and then finds himself in trouble.

        Looks like PTSB added on loads of penalties; he could have sold and downsized early on to clear his debts

    2. Freia

      Well, it is different in terms of the excessive length of its bankruptcy. We are also talking about people’s homes here, not businesses that can be written off. The majority of the repossessed are ordinary people living in very modest homes. They aren’t looking for a free house or anything like it. Nor will they get it. But it is important to point out to right-wing ‘people’ such as yourself, that the various bank guarantees and bail-out agreements transferred immense private debt onto the shoulders of the most vulnerable in our society. What did they expect might happen? That people would just go “Oh, ok, let my life become an ongoing misery because a bunch of cretins, behind closed doors, decided to socialise the debts of an unregulated and entirely corrupt group of financial criminals. I mean, come on, I had a week in Lanzarote last year. I’ve been living way beyond my means. And the people who created the debt in the first place, they have fallen on very hard times, haven’t they? So sure, why not, have my home, another homeless family, sure there’s loads of us now.”

        1. Freia

          You may have missed this sentence: “They aren’t looking for a free house or anything like it. Nor will they get it.”

          I’m saying that the situation is unfair. And yes, life is unfair, but when the odds are this stacked in favour of the ‘haves’ over the ‘have nots’, I can sympathise with their plight.
          The very rich have got their own ‘free house’ many times over when their private debts were socialised. So, really, why wouldn’t people feel angry and unjustly hard done by?

          1. Rob_G

            That is kind of what you were saying – if bailing out bondholders who made foolish decisions was wrong, then bailing out people who bought houses that they could not afford would also be wrong.

          2. Freia

            It would appear to make more sense this way, I think: if bailing out bondholders who made foolish decisions is wrong, yet it’s happening, then bailing out people who bought houses they now cannot afford BECAUSE of the bailing out of bondholders and the subsequent imposition of an unjust austerity, is probably fair, no? Bailing out the group who wreaked the havoc and not bailing out those who have become the human collateral of that havoc seems unjust, in the extreme.

  4. Spaghetti Hoop

    Tell me this…how does an ‘ordinary’ person accrue debts to the amount of €32k and not enter a re-structure with their bank? Isn’t it also the same reason why the O’Donnells are clinging to their home despite their reluctance to pay for it?

    1. Sinabhfuil

      It takes two to restructure. Word on the street is that you go to the bank, turning your hat in your hands, and say “Excuse me, sir, it’s like, sir, I’d like to restructure my loan, sir, if you don’t mind too much, sir, you’ll get it all back, sir, I’ll pay two-thirds and pay it for longer so you’ll get more interest, sir, is that agreeable, sir”, and the banker takes a swig of his Goût de Diamants and says “Naaah. Don’t think so. See you in court. That’s a nice house, I’ll have that.”

      1. Spaghetti Hoop

        I don’t believe that. The crisis has a lot to do with heads in sand and unopened post.

        1. Dubloony

          In Limerick court last week, there were 219 repossession cases. The judge granted 2 of them. The others were given time as there were frantic negotiations going on.

          It would suggest that there is a large amount of people not facing up to the reality of their situation. Judges don’t grant evictions lightly.

          In the case of the man undergoing cancer treatment. I presume he’s unable to work due to disability. His €78 per week does not sound right. That’s not a full disability payment. He could do with some proper advice.

  5. My Daddy is bigger than Yours

    So some guy says people shouldn’t be expected to pay back their debts and because he has a PhD it’s news?

    There are loads of people renting who want to buy houses but prices are kept high because of people like David Hall, Kitty Holland, Julien Mercille.

    1. JD

      (1) The cost of housing those evicted comes back to the state in a lot of cases…

      (2) the high house prices is a failure of planning, a lack of regulation around land use and land banks, and a wide range of issues relating to our own particular attitude to housing as well as renting.

      1. My Daddy is bigger than Yours

        1) Ah shure that’s grand. We’d be mad to repossess.

        Or else they can rent. There are lots of strategic defaulters out there looking for a write down paid for by taxpayer owned bank

        2) Yes. And partly because people not paying their mortgages are staying put instead of bloody downsizing

  6. Odis

    I think one of the reasons for the popular interest in the story, is the astounding arrogance of some of the players. O’Donnell was thrown out of court, when he tried to declare bankruptcy in the UK. The principle reason being that he failed to declare a 120K per annum income. An oversight apparently, but the judge didn’t see it that way.
    He has pulled a number of legal stunts, to get judges thrown off the case. e.g. the judge has a mortgage and current A/c with Bank of Ireland and is therefore biased. And according to Justine McCarthy, in the Sunday Times, he has pulled stunts with his Art collection.

    It seems to me that O’Donnell is trying to establish the principle That there should be one set of bankruptcy/debtor arrangements, for the rich and another set of bankruptcy/debtor arrangements for the poor. And of course, to a degree, this is true.
    This is a debate about just how large the inequality in the bankruptcy/debtor laws should be allowed to become.

    1. Joe the Lion

      It seems to me that ‘principle’ is already well established

      That’s oddly – why I support O’Donnell and NLL in this

      In their own fuppwitted way they’re shining a very bright insightful light indeed on “due process”

  7. Soundings

    Interesting perspective from Dr Julien Mercille. Truth though is, 80 people will die in Ireland today on average and unless there’s a homicide or road traffic accident, hardly any will receive news coverage nationally. Unless they’re rich and/or famous. That’s the nature of news, always has been, and likely, always will be.

    He’s right that there has been little media coverage of individual court repossessions, which have been running at around 500 a year. A few of them were resisted, I remember TDs and Direct Democracy at a few and a bulldozer at another – though even these weren’t reported by broadcasters – but the vast majority have been ignored by the media who will ignore most of the 80 people who die today.

    With repossessions expected to spike in 2015-2017 though, I hope more attention will be given to individual representative cases, as this is going to become a significant issue in a country where traditionally, we don’t do repossessions.

  8. Paolo

    The post is largely true except that the good doctor picks two cases at the extreme ends of the spectrum. Most of the repossessions are not stories of bad luck compounded by uncaring banking machines, they are stories of people who borrowed money, knowing that if their circumstances changed, they would not be able to repay that debt. Pretending that this is not the case is unhelpful. The capitalist, market driven economy that we have requires periods of recession in order to reset. It is always the middle class that is hit hardest when the boom turns to bust but until we have an economy that is not based on perpetual growth, we will have to endure these busts at regular intervals.

  9. Truth in the News

    The farce at Gorse Hill is a diversion by a lazy media, who have failed
    to address the issue of the thousands of families in difficulty with repayments
    Since there was an an agency set up, to bale out the banks with the taxpayer
    picking up the bill, where is a similar agency to deal with and address this
    issue….the Banks are back in old style with compound interest, spurious claims
    Since the Goverment control one and most of the other what actions are
    they taking to protect the citizens affected…..too pre occupied with water charges
    and making sure Denis O’Brien is not upset prior to the next election.

  10. Al

    I do have some sympathy for some of the homeowners in mortgage arrears. But people who knowingly bought overpriced palatial pads that they had no hope of paying for deserve no sympathy at all. They are the reason for the boom and bust,. They drove up the prices so much that the only eventuality was a bubble that would burst. And they still want to have their cake and eat it.

  11. Toni The Exotic Dancer

    There is more to this story than meets the eye. 4 people in that house and between them they couldn’t pay off the loan? I don’t think so. While I feel sorry for this guy, the media are picking stories like this to cover up the fact that there is widespread mortgage default by those who are choosing not to pay. If you can’t afford to live somewhere then move somewhere you can afford.

  12. Frilly Keane

    I just wish ta’ück ye’d all stop using “ordinary people”

    I’ve yet ta’meet an ordinary paddy

  13. Kieran NYC

    How can someone be a lecturer and still write like a 14 year old who just bought his first Che Guevara poster?

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