Stafford let mask slip on how our betters cope with crash

Apology did not say he had been factually incorrect

“Irish people’s pathological obsession with property, is often intertwined with the worst sort of petty snobbery”. PHOTOGRAPH: ALAN BETSON

“Irish people’s pathological obsession with property, is often intertwined with the worst sort of petty snobbery”. PHOTOGRAPH: ALAN BETSON

Sat, Sep 14, 2013, 01:20

By their principal private residences shall ye know them. This week we learned that the professional classes don’t just want to live in the sort of houses that dominate this newspaper’s property supplement. They need to.

And, should they get into financial difficulties, God forbid that they might be asked to vacate them for something more modest in the wrong part of town. The politics of envy.

On Monday, Jim Stafford, insolvency expert and PIP, or personal insolvency practitioner, explained to RTÉ that his job will be “to try and keep the family in their family home if at all possible. The PIP will have to assess the existing mortgage on the home, if it’s a modest house, if it’s a trophy house.”

So far, so fair enough. In Ireland, the “family home” is the most sacred of sacred cows, after all. But there was more. “In practice, the PIP will also have to assess the type of house that might be needed for a professional person such as a solicitor, accountant or a hospital consultant, as opposed to a house that’s needed by someone who is in the PAYE sector for example,” Jim explained helpfully.

“So that, as a PIP, I would be making a very strong case, for example, that a solicitor should have a bigger house that accords with his professional status in society so that his neighbours and clients can see that, yes, this person is a good solicitor who is living in a good house etc, etc.”

Enlightening insight

Within days, Jim and his colleagues in the hitherto promising insolvency business had been dragged through the three stages of media cock-up: bluster (“it’s inevitable that misunderstandings can arise, and that statements can be taken out of context,” he told irishtimes.com on Tuesday); denial (“the professional standing of a borrower is not expected to be a factor in this assessment,” the Insolvency Service of Ireland declared soon afterwards); and seemingly abject apology (“I would like to acknowledge and sincerely apologise for the hurt and distress that my comments to RTÉ have undoubtedly caused,” read the statement that evening on the website of Friel Stafford, Jim’s company).

Hurt? Distress? Actually, there was very little of either visible. PAYE workers and other “non-professionals” weren’t smiling bravely through the tears. They were agreeing that the mask had momentarily slipped; this was one of the more enlightening insights they’d heard into how our betters are really coping with the economic crash.

After all, this wasn’t some ill-informed loudmouth accidentally revealing his inner Ross O’Carroll-Kelly. Jim Stafford, described by this paper as one of the most senior insolvency practitioners in the State, had been speaking to the national broadcaster on the very first day of operation of the new insolvency service .

And, in the usual way of these things, his apology did not say he had been factually incorrect. It could hardly have been a more inauspicious beginning for the new system, but it fuelled the highly credible post-crash narrative of socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor.

Since the economic crash, a recurring refrain has been that Ireland is ill-equipped to deal with business failure. Our archaic and punitive bankruptcy regime supposedly penalises risk-taking and entrepreneurship. In dynamic economies such as the US, bankruptcy is a rite of passage for entrepreneurs, but here there’s an unhealthy begrudgery and a desire to put people in the stocks: poor old Ivan Yates, for example, was reportedly taken aback at the level of vitriol directed at him by Newstalk listeners.

Petty snobbery

The new insolvency process is supposed to address some of these structural shortcomings; the psychological ones, one assumes, will require some deeper form of re-education.

Jim Stafford, though, wasn’t talking about entrepreneurs at all. He was discussing “professionals”, specifically solicitors, accountants and doctors. Why would a medical consultant be availing of a PIP’s services in the first place? Probably because he ended up on the wrong end of some property-based Ponzi scheme.

How unspeakable to think that as a result of such misfortune, he might be asked to downsize to a three-bed semi – or worse. They may owe millions to banks ( to you), but don’t expect them to vacate that redbrick any time soon.

Irish people’s pathological obsession with property is often intertwined with the worst sort of petty snobbery. But strip away the sentimental blather about our attachment to the family homestead or atavistic memories of 19th-century evictions, and the truth sometimes slips out.

Some people just think they’re worth it. Their property is deeply entwined with their inflated sense of who they are and where they belong. And guess who’s going to foot the bill?

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