The west’s awake: Mayo’s anti-repo men
For former auctioneer Gerry O’Boyle and other Land League West members, the suffering caused by house repossessions is unjustifiable and requires a collective response
Gerry O’Boyle, of Land League West, at repossessed houses in Hazel Downs Estate, Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo. Photograph: Keith Heneghan
‘You see up there?” says Gerry O’Boyle, on a road outside Kiltimagh, Co Mayo. He points to a jeep blocking a driveway that leads up to a modest farmhouse. A small truck is also parked up against the front door. “There’s no way he’s letting the receivers in.”
Further along, off the main road, there’s a large bungalow which until recently had a makeshift blockade in the driveway.
In the direction of Ballina, a stone-clad two-storey house sits dead-eyed, with boarded-up windows and doors.
O’Boyle is giving me a tour of west Mayo, and its hidden geography of homes mired in mortgage arrears or in the process of being repossessed.
His phone rings every few minutes. As head of the Land League West, he’s in high demand. Invariably, the call is from a farmer, builder or business owner in some form of trouble with the banks and looking for advice or support.
“These are people, ordinary people, who are suffering,” he says. “They’re not living in Gorse Hill. They’re not former millionaires flying in to prevent their homes from being taken. They’re ordinary, decent people who did the sensible thing. They were loaned money, they bought a home, and now they’re being made to pay.”
Seven years into the crisis, home repossessions are rapidly developing into a major social and political issue. Up until last year, most banks and lenders were happy to do little, in the hope that things would improve.
But following the removal of a legal obstacle to repossessions, new mortgage resolution targets for banks and an upturn in the property market, court-enforced repossessions are quickly mounting up in the courts.
Around 8,000 Civil Bills have been lodged by banks seeking repossession. The number is expected to rise sharply over the coming months, with 38,000 mortgage-holders in arrears of two years or more.
In Mayo, 110 repossession orders were sought at a court sitting in Castlebar a fortnight ago.
O’Boyle and a group of activists, who call themselves the Land League West, claim to have taken up the up the cause of Michael Davitt, the 19th-century Mayo republican who fought for tenant farmers and put up resistance against evictions.
Holy water was sprinkled and the rosary recited around the court in Castlebar recently, as protesters disrupted proceedings. In the end – after the court was forced to adjourn and set up in private, flanked by gardaí – only five repossession orders were granted.
Protesters have threatened to up the ante at the next sitting, with talk of blocking access to courts or protesting at the homes of bank managers in the region.
Spooked into action, the Government is working on yet another plan to deal with the mortgage arrears crisis, despite previous work by three expert groups and successive policy changes. Measures will be introduced to assist those trying to retain the family home.
But for those in serious debt, any meaningful solutions, such as mortgage write-downs, shorter bankruptcy periods or moves to ease the pressure on borrowers, will involve a cost falling somewhere.
One thing seems increasingly clear: with thousands of cases piling up in the courts, and the spectre of family homes being repossessed, simply hoping for the best no longer seems a real option for anyone.
Father-of-three Pat says he’s still shaken from his brush with an attempted repossession. He’s 40, and hasn’t found work since the bottom fell out of the property industry a few years ago. The €120,000 mortgage he took out to build his family home hasn’t been paid since 2008.
“I didn’t take risks,” he says. “I was self-employed. My wife was a retail manager. I had five lads working with me. Things were going good. Then I got stung for about €25,000 when a developer disappeared.”
He says his debts spiralled after he used what cash he had to pay his workers’ social insurance and tax to Revenue.
After that, he tried to engage with the bank, he says, offering a portion of his dole each month. He claims no one at the bank was interested. Two weeks before Christmas, the receivers arrived. “It was about 10.30 in the morning. The eldest two had gone to school, at least. They called in a van and two cars. They said: ‘We’re here to repossess your house.’ They had sheets of steel with them for the windows . . . I called the boys. They said to them they had no jurisdiction to be there, and they backed off.”
He says he worries about the shame when they eventually take the house. And he worries for his wife, whose is on antidepressants. Most of all, he worries about the future for his family.
“I’ve thought about the river,” he says, nodding in the direction of a water course running past the bottom of the house. “But it wouldn’t solve anything. At least with the boys, there’s half a fighting chance. It buys you time just to get your head around things.”
O’Boyle names four men he was in touch with who died by suicide over recent months. As we speak, the widow of one rings up seeking advice about a looming court date to do with her home.
“You can see the stress in people’s eyes and hear it in their voices,” O’Boyle says. “These are people who don’t know about their rights. They’re intimidated by the courts. There’s no one helping or supporting them. We’re standing up for them.”
Realistically, O’Boyle acknowledges, all the Land League West can do for most is simply put off the inevitable.
In cases where repossession orders loom, his group’s strategy is to challenge the authority of court registrars, look for weaknesses in paperwork in the deeds of houses and mortgage applications, or try to find conflicts of interest on the part of judges, banks and court officials.
When a repossession is in process, he says, the group’s members gather in solidarity with mortgage-holders. He adds that they don’t advocate violence.
He says that the Land League West, which is loosely aligned with other branches around the country, has about 600 members, but claims to be supporting up to 3,000 people.
The active members include farmers, small business owners, builders and plasterers. Many are disenchanted former Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael supporters. Most have had their own run-ins with the banks, either through mortgage arrears or bad investments. There is no shortage of conspiracy theories floating about, involving the intersecting worlds of bankers, the judiciary, gardaí and the Government.
“I’m no socialist, I’m no leftie, I’m not anti-water charges or anti-property tax,” says John Cadden, a member of the Land League West, who describes himself as a businessman-farmer. “I’m middle of the road, middle-class, middle Ireland. But when I see weak and vulnerable people caught up in this, we can’t sit back and allow it to happen.”
He insists that the vast majority of those caught in repossessions are small-time workers, and he distances the local organisation from Land League campaigners in Dublin who’ve supported solicitor and former millionaire Brian O’Donnell. Of the repossession cases involving family homes locally, Cadden says, the average mortgage is about €220,000.
Some members were undoubtedly enthusiastic supporters of the property boom, but are now fierce critics of the banks and policies that fanned the flames of the housing market.
O’Boyle himself did well in the boom years. As an auctioneer based in Ballyhaunis, he employed four auctioneers and two secretaries and sold more than 200 homes in a single year. He had a BMW in his garage and a helicopter in the back garden of his five-bedroom home.
When the downturn came, he lost most of his wealth. What radicalised O’Boyle most, he says, was having what used to be his family home “robbed from under my nose” by the bank. He had been paying interest only on the mortgage for a year or more.
By his own admission, he also served a six-month prison sentence for insurance fraud. He insists that it was a wrongful conviction and plans to appeal the finding in the courts.
These days he describes himself as an active citizen, working to support families in danger of losing their homes. He also hopes to stand for election to draw attention to the wider issues and secure a better deal for those in mortgage distress.
So far, the Irish solution to our mortgage problem has been to hold out the threat of repossession, even it it has not been used much in practice. But a day of reckoning for many appears to be quickly approaching.
In countries such as Spain, about 4 per cent of mortgages have involved repossessions since the crash. If we had Spanish levels of foreclosures, some 30,000 homes would have been repossessed by now. Instead, the latest figures indicate that fewer than 4,000 homes were repossessed up to the end of last year.
The Land League says that banks need to be pushed to offer longer-term solutions, such as mortgage-to-rent schemes (which mean losing ownership but being able to continue renting) for those in deep trouble, and split mortgages, where part of the debt is parked and may eventually be written down.
“This phone never stops,” says O’Boyle. “The Government might say they’re looking for solutions. But what about the families in distress, up in court on mortgages with subprime lenders? We rescued the banks, no questions asked. But what are we going to do to help homeowners?”
Receiving committees: Who’s fighting home repossessions?
THE NEW LAND LEAGUE
Set up in 2013 when Jerry Beades and others disrupted an auction of seized property. The group supported solicitor Brian O’Donnell’s bid to retain his Gorse Hill home in Killiney. Beades, a former property developer, was a close associate of Bertie Ahern when he was taoiseach.
THE NATIONAL LAND LEAGUE
Sees itself as the equivalent of Michael Davitt’s movement of the late 1800s. The organisation says it supports those in mortgage distress. Members include former Garda detective Jim Devaney, former Army member Jim Miller and community activist Finbar Markey.
Loose organisation of volunteers seeking to prevent the “forced eviction” of families from homes. Favours peaceful, direct action such as “identifying and shaming” anyone involved in repossession.
Founded by lawyers to provide representation to people facing repossession of a family home. Ross Maguire is acting chief executive and co-founder, along with Vincent Martin. Last year it apologised for passing details of 1,000 people in mortgage difficulties to a commercial partner.
IRISH MORTGAGE HOLDERS ORGANISATION
Describes itself as a not-for-profit organisation that facilitates independent debt resolution between lenders and mortgage holders. Its director is David Hall, a former member of Fianna Fáil who ran as an Independent in last year’s Dublin West byelection.