Dante’s Inferno Irish Style

In the Inferno Dante passes through the gates of hell bearing the sign “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here “. He then proceeds through the nine circles of Hell starting with the guiltless damned of Limbo and ultimately arriving with those that had betrayed their kin or their country.

At the start of 2017 this process must resonate with the ordinary citizens of Ireland who through their debts are now in the 9th year of financial hell. Unlike Dante’s journey however, the journey of these citizens did not begin with a dire warning to “Abandon all hope.” Instead they were reassured throughout this journey that the banks were solid, that Ireland didn’t need a bailout, that we had regained our sovereignty and that we need to keep the recovery going. These cheery slogans contrasted with the daily hell that these borrowers have endured for 9 years. The financial toll has been enormous.

A paper issued by the Central Bank in 2011 showed a loss of wealth by Irish citizens as a result of the financial crisis totalled €281billion. It is easy to equate borrowers impacted by this as being in Dante’s Limbo – guiltless but nonetheless damned.

On the other hand the guilt of banks in the creation of the financial crisis has been well aired. Despite being the “guilty damned” they have been protected and aided by the State. The losses suffered by the banks have been substantially offset by the massive injection of government aid to the tune of €60bn.

For the private citizen however the position is a lot bleaker. In addition to taking a €281 billion hit on the value of their assets, the same citizens were also obliged, through their taxes, to suffer a further €60bn loss to compensate the banks.

This money allowed the banks to write down the book value of their debts to economic levels. However the banks did not pass on the benefit to their customers who had provided the money in the first place. Instead it subjected them to further losses by imposing high interest rates and/or wrongly removing them from tracker mortgages. The Central Bank recently estimated that as many as 100 people had lost their homes as a result of this wrongdoing.

Those customers that survived these first few circles of hell are now facing in to another one – their debt has been sold to vulture funds that are now proceeding to pillage and plunder those customers.

The stress endured by such Consumers over the last 9 years has been enormous. There isn’t a broker from any part of this country cannot recount tales of hardship, illness and death arising from this financial flogging.

Dante reserved the final circle of hell for those who engaged in treachery – betraying their kin or their country. In a peculiarly Irish twist on this we have reserved this part of hell for the victims of treachery – those that have been betrayed by bankers, politicians and regulators.

As we have noted previously in this column, a century ago a small group of Irishmen gave their lives declaring “the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible”.

It is difficult to reconcile that sentiment with the policy of delivering vast swathes of ordinary Irish people into the hands of rapacious vulture funds. The men and women of 1916 prayed that “no one who serves that cause will dishonour it by cowardice, inhumanity, or rapine”.

There is no reason why the Central Bank doesn’t sort this matter out now. Its use of the Consumer Protection Code is belatedly protecting tracker customers. Surely it is “in the best interest of customers and the integrity of the market” for vulture fund victims to be similarly protected? That would make it a Happy New Year for all.

Can you tell us a bit about your personal background?

My journey into Financial Services began in the National University of Ireland, Galway, formally known as University College Galway, where I achieved a Bachelor of Commerce Degree. I then qualified as a Chartered Accountant and became a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland. I proceeded to achieve a Diploma in International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) and most recently became a Fellow of the Institute.

I joined Grant Thornton in 2002 and in the past 14 years I have gained fantastic experience in various areas. I am often asked what has been the highlight – personally, I received the greatest sense of achievement from developing the credit union division in the firm which I now oversee, providing audit and advisory services. I have only been able to achieve this through continuously enhancing and building my skills, and that is one of the reasons I became involved with LIA.

Could you tell us a little about your involvement with LIA to date?

Initially I became involved with LIA because I truly believe that the values of the organisation align closely to my own personal values. In 2012, I was appointed to the Board of Directors. The organisation’s professionalism and high quality service delivery was clear from day one. The Board’s passion and energy meant that we all hit the ground running.

In 2016 I was elected Vice-President and I am delighted to be taking up the prestigious mantle of President for 2017.

What does LIA mean to you?

The mission of LIA is ‘to enhance the knowledge, competence and skills of our members and students who work in all areas of the Financial Services industry’.

Working in the Financial Services industry for the majority of my career means that I am very cognisant of the importance of a continuous education programme and how this is pivotal in enhancing one’s career, opening many doors of opportunity along the way. LIA encourages people to invest in their future.

LIA is not just about education – it is a friendly face which is an experience we work hard to deliver to all our members. The encouragement of face-to-face interaction provided at our seminars and events means that we not only build on the education of our members, but we create a network of like-minded professionals with shared values.

It was truly an honour to be asked to take on the role of President as I believe that LIA is a true ambassador of professionalism, leadership and education.

Tell us about LIA’s achievements during 2016

As Vice-President for 2016, I was delighted to be part of significant developments within LIA. Our total number of members (including student members) now stands at 12,000 and the fact that credit union members now account for 12% of that figure is testament to the sector’s enthusiasm for LIA’s courses and designations designed for their roles.

The Business Transformation project announced in 2015, Operation Eclipse, took great strides throughout the last 12 months. Undoubtedly the largest development and investment

“The Business Transformation project announced in 2015, Operation Eclipse, took great strides throughout the last 12 months. Undoubtedly the largest development and investment project ever undertaken by LIA, this project involves a re-imagining of our Learning Management and Member Engagement Platforms as well as an internal transformation in how we do business”

project ever undertaken by LIA, this project involves a re-imagining of our Learning Management and Member Engagement Platforms as well as an internal transformation in how we do business. Once completed Operation Eclipse will result in LIA being able to deliver its products and services in more efficient, secure, user-friendly and innovative ways for many years to come. We expect to deliver the project in phases during Spring 2017.

Our education courses continued to be in good demand throughout the year with over 7,000 course registrations and exam sittings across our 19 modules. Personally I was very pleased with the continued success of our Credit Union Channels programme. The new CU Governance & Risk module (leading to the CUG designation) replaced the Credit Union Governance module at the beginning of the academic year with specific additional focus on Risk and Risk Management, emphasising the importance of Risk, Governance and Compliance for Credit Unions.

The appetite among our members for specialist practitioner courses which go well beyond Minimum Competency continued to grow with registrations on both of our Retirement Planning Advice modules higher than that of last year. Similarly, the second sitting of the Professional Certificate in Asset Management, leading to the Specialist Investment Adviser (SIA) designation, took place in early 2016. This one-module course is at level 9 on the National Framework of Qualifications and provides a stepping stone to members who want to progress to the Graduate Diploma in Financial Planning, which in itself was popular again this year with 71 graduates successfully sitting the CFP® certification exam.

The past year was also very busy on the Seminar & Events front. Our Regional and National Committees once again put together a very strong programme of regional CPD events, offering over 80 hours of live face-to-face seminars across our eight regions. Our ever popular joint seminar series with the Irish Tax Institute took to the road in June – ‘Managing Wealth in 2016 and Beyond’ travelled to Galway, Cork and Dublin with over 500 attending across the three venues.

What has LIA been doing to attract new members in 2016?

We launched our new course for Trustees during the summer, leading to the Pension Trustee Practitioner (PTP) designation. This was developed for those acting or wanting to act as a trustee of a defined contribution occupational pension scheme or Trust RAC, as a Pensioneer Trustee or as a director of a company acting as a Pensioneer or Professional Trustee of such arrangements as it will equip them with the knowledge, competencies and skills required to carry out their roles effectively. We also believe that the PTP will be a must-have for practitioners who advise Trustees of such arrangements and will enable them to demonstrate that they have a very clear understanding of the demanding and responsible role of being a Trustee.

In addition, our focus this year was to raise awareness among secondary school students and their Career Guidance Counsellors of the alternative education path available to them with LIA. In this regard, and for the second year running, LIA had a stand at the three-day Higher Options exhibition in the RDS. We designed marketing materials specifically for this market and particularly focussed on reaching out to Careers Guidance Counsellors with our slogan “Financial Careers that don’t take years – No points required!”.

What are you most looking forward to about your year in office?

I am looking forward to filling the shoes of great Presidents gone before me who have always had the interests of members at their core. LIA is member focused with their interests and growth a key part of the organisation’s values, which I intend to follow. I look forward to furthering the growth of LIA and all we have to offer our members and students.

Of course it is important to recognise all of those who have built LIA to the organisation it has become and I would like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank Pat O’Sullivan, Chief Executive, as well as LIA management and staff for continually raising standards in meeting our members’ needs. I very much look forward to working closely with the LIA team and my fellow Board members this year to continue to shape the future of LIA.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The future is bright for the Irish economy and the Financial Services industry. I have seen this in my role as a Partner in Grant Thornton when we reached the milestone of over 1,000 employees throughout Ireland this year. With this in mind, I am very enthusiastic about the year ahead as President – the industry, and LIA, has a lot to be proud of as we continue to grow and emerge from the economic downturn of recent times.

LIA is determined to grow and raise the standards of education and our offerings and services to our members, and I look forward to playing a part in its continued development and success.