Negative equity and debt forgiveness - the big questions facing the Republic

By Jennifer O'Leary
BBC News

Image caption,
Jillian Godsil needs to sell her house at a drastically reduced price

Jillian Godsil is circumspect about the situation she finds herself in.

The divorced mother of two is living in a rented cottage because what was once her dream home, a Georgian-style mansion near Shillelagh in County Wicklow, is up for sale.

And she is under pressure to find a buyer - her €900,000 (£790,000) mortgage is in arrears.

"Sometimes I worry more about paying the electricity bill, the back to school expenses, those things make me lose sleep. The €900,000 mortgage I can sleep with but it does frustrate me and it is a worry " she said.

Jillian's mortgage may be at the upper end of the scale but she is not alone. The number of people in mortgage arrears in Ireland has more than doubled since the end of 2009 as interest rate hikes, pay cuts and austerity measures take their toll.

The issue of debt forgiveness has become the subject of growing debate as the latest Central Bank figures show that over 55,000 homeowners are more than three months behind on repayments.

Negative equity is also restricting people's options because of the property crash. Jillian Godsil's home was valued at €1.5m (£1.3m) at the height of the property boom. She has recently put the 5,200 square-foot property up for sale on YouTube at a reduced price of €500,000.

"Given the number of people that are in mortgage default along with hundreds of thousands who are in a negative equity, we now have close to 300,000 consumers in the Republic who are financially under water, who are not making a contribution to the economy as consumers and that is not a sustainable situation in the longer term," said economist Jim Power.

The organisation, New Beginning, was set up to help homeowners in arrears and facing court action, and has been overwhelmed by the demand for its free service.

Silver button

Ross Maguire is a co-founder of the group: "One person said to us, it's worse than a prison sentence because in that situation you could see an end, but with debt, which is accumulating interest all the time, the problem is getting greater and there is no end in sight."

Government proposals to help homeowners in arrears are set to be announced before December's budget but Ireland's Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan has ruled out a universal debt forgiveness scheme for struggling mortgage borrowers, saying it was "not a realistic option".

Ireland's banks are trying to contain the bad-loan losses on their mortgage books, but the Irish Banking Federation's chief executive Pat Farrell said debt forgiveness is not a silver bullet solution.

"Capital has been put into the banks by Irish taxpayers on the basis that it will yield a return, if that capital is to be used in some broad debt forgiveness programme than the level of capital available in the longer term that will sustain a return will be much lower," he said.

Back in County Wicklow, Jillian Godsil said she is not looking for debt absolution but parity of pain.

"I have lost everything - all I own now is a fridge freezer - but the bank is still protected, they lent me the money but when it all went pear shaped they take no responsibility," she said.

"I am so lucky in that my children, family and neighbours are so good but no one wants to lose their home and start again in their 40s, its not a very edifying thought."