“I can give you this guarantee – arising from the expert report which Government has and will make decisions on in the next couple of weeks, there will be additional facilities for people who have distressed mortgage situations to help ease that problem; all the solutions are going to be slightly different in each individual case.” An Taoiseach Enda Kenny speaking alongside former US president Bill Clinton at the Global Irish Network event at Dublin Castle in October 2011
Last October 2011, there was a gathering of that strange beast called the Global Irish Network. Held in Dublin Castle over two days, the gathering dubbed the “Global Irish Economic Forum” saw the mingling of, and heard from, the great and the good of Irish business – resident, diaspora and hybrid like Denis O’Brien. The Network came about under the last administration which showed initiative in trying to gather together an Irish brain trust which might help the country recover from the collapse of the banking sector and the property bubble in 2008. It’s a funny old gathering which hasn’t been an unqualified success to date, and in fact looks a little uncomfortable in its own shoes. The forum gave rise to the worldirish.com website which has only recently started to provide any real content and for a long period simply allowed people register their names, which wasn’t very rewarding.
The star attraction at last October’s gathering was former US president and very good friend to this nation, Bill Clinton. I don’t know how Bill reached the venue but if he came in on the M50 motorway and paid a toll, then he might have contributed more economically to this country in the past year than U2’s Bono who also had a guest-of-honour status. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it captures one of the many paradoxes and ironies on parade last October. As I say, a bit uncomfortable and we might need get over that before truly embracing the enormous potential of some 70m Irish-connected people around the world.
Now Bill addressed the forum on Saturday 8th October having just had a 30-minute confab with An Taoiseach Enda Kenny. And it surprised me to hear Bill say that the biggest financial obstacle facing the country was the burgeoning mortgage crisis – remember, of the 800,000 mortgage accounts in the country, over 8% are in arrears for more than 90 days and some 70,000 mortgage accounts have been restructured in some way, for example, placed on interest-only repayments or offered payment holidays. Last week the Central Bank estimated that at the end of 2010, as much as 47% of the mortgage balances held at banks were on mortgages which were in negative equity, and remember house prices continued to decline by nearly 20% in 2011 so that 47% will inevitably have grown. You can view the video of Bill’s speech at the forum here.
Immediately after Bill’s keynote address to the forum there was a discussion session hosted by Fionnuala Sweeney from CNN where Bill said “that’s why I told you, you know, I can’t- the last big decision you have is what you’re going to do about the mortgage deal, where you can flush debt, the more you can generate small business demand, domestic stuff and growth. Everything else is stuff you know more about than I do” Fionnuala then asked Enda “and President Clinton also highlighted the mortgage situation here, he said that’s like a top priority, I mean do you have anything to say about that in terms of how you’re going to handle that?” And Enda replied “the Government appointed a specialist commission to look at what other options that government might consider for distressed mortgages and that’s reported and it will be decided by government in the next fortnight or three weeks..what we want to do is put together another range of options for everybody that is in that is in that position, the best opportunity of getting out of it” and gave the following commitment “I can give you this guarantee – arising from the expert report which Government has and will make decisions on in the next couple of weeks, there will be additional facilities for people who have distressed mortgage situations to help ease that problem; all the solutions are going to be slightly different in each individual case”
That was 8th October. We are now at 8th February and in New York tomorrow, Enda is set to share the stage again with Bill, with the launch of the “Invest in Ireland” conference. This will be, I believe, the first contact between the two men since that cold and wet October afternoon, last year. There will presumably be a private meeting again, but what will Enda tell Bill about the commitment given in October?
He might say that an expert group on mortgage arrears published its report on 12th October, but he will then have to admit that none of the recommendations in the report has yet been enacted. He might say that after nearly a year in office, his government has only now published the heads of an insolvency bill which will be finalised in April 2012 and may be enacted some time later, perhaps even by the end of 2012. He might say that there is now a scheme whereby distressed mortgage borrowers can have their property sold to a local authority or housing association and they can rent it back, but if he does he will perhaps mention that to date only one such household has benefited and that was only last week. And if Bill mentions householders who need help now, today, what will Enda say?
If you feel like reminding President Clinton of Enda’s commitment, then you can contact Bill through his foundation here.