In a column in the Sligo Weekender
and the Sunday Business Post
, Sligo businessman and Renua general election candidate, Finbarr Filan, who is also chair of the Sligo Business Improvement District, wrote, "I went bankrupt last Monday. These are not words I ever expected to have to write."The bankruptcy refers to his involvement in Shafin Developments, the property company he established with his brother, former Westlife star Shane Filan which collapsed in 2012.
The singer, faced with a bill of €23m, was declared bankrupt in the UK. Finbarr disclosed that he was declared bankrupt last Monday for his debts of €15 million.
He wrote movingly how he sat in his car and cried after he waved goodbye to Shane at the airport at Christmas 2012. Last Monday Finbarr was one of 40 people waiting to have their bankruptcy adjudicated on. They were mostly men and women in their 40s who had tried to set up businesses but saw their dreams disappear and now awaited their fate.
In 2003, when the brothers set up their property development company, the banks were over-eager to lend money. Through their company they took out several loans to develop housing estates, shopping centres, nursing homes and other projects in Sligo and Leitrim.
Within three years the wheels were coming off the Irish property wagon and the banks tried desperately and aggressively to claw back monies from troubled firms who were witnessing the onset of a terrible recession and seeing their vital cash flow and credit lines evaporate with alarming speed.
Earlier this year Finbarr applied to have a debt settlement arrangement approved however last Monday it all came to an end as his bankruptcy was confirmed by the judge following his inspection of all related documents.Finbarr Filan's column in full.
I went bankrupt last Monday. These are not words I ever expected to have to write. Those five words and that short sentence are the end result of a long journey. They certainly are not words I ever thought I would be happy to write.
Most definitely I never would have dreamt that I would be anxious to have that fact published. But I did and I am.
I have a variety of reasons for wanting to have that sentence ‘out there’, some are personal, some are practical reasons, but mostly because people like me, who have gone through the process and are at the other side of it need to speak to those still mired in debt and feeling that there is no hope and there can be no second act in their lives.
Practically the hardest thing to understand about going bankrupt to the tune of €15 million is how fast it happened. The poet Robert Burns has a line in one of his poems which is now adapted into modern day use - ‘the best laid plans of mice and men’, meaning that despite the best intentions and planning, things can go terribly and horribly wrong.
Shane and Finbarr Filan at the height of Shafin Developments' success. Photo James Connolly
We drew down our first development loan in 2003 and had some success. That success led to a bigger loan, and soon we were going too fast too soon. Hindsight is never there when you are in the middle of an impending calamity and there have being long, dark days and nights of questioning why we didn’t see the crash coming. By 2006 it was clear we were in trouble. By 2007 it was effectively over. In the space of four years decisions we made, based on advice and guidance from trusted sources brought us to the brink of the abyss and straight over the edge – with devastating consequences.
Our challenge from the outset was that the projects we worked on were viable and solid. We were actively sought out by financial institutions, suggesting bigger projects and green lighting larger and larger financing on the back of previous projects. That is how the process worked and we didn’t apply a safety break, we were (unknowingly) hurtling towards a precipitous drop.
The drop when it came was bleak and life changing. The worst day for me was spent packing up Shane’s family house and driving him to the plane in Knock. He was on his way to London that day to start the process of rebuilding his life after being declared bankrupt himself. The guilt I felt at the part I played in losing his home almost overwhelmed me. All day I cleaned and packed and moved and boxed without a break – trying to keep all thoughts and feelings at bay. After his plane took off I sat in my car in the car park and wept for the first time and stayed there until I was sure I could safely go home.
The first reaction is guilt, quickly followed by fear and denial. To this day to my family’s annoyance I am afraid of the post box. Anyone who has been in deep financial trouble will understand that. The postman only brings bad news, brown packages of documents and registered letters from the bank or the sheriff.
Being under financial pressure takes its toll - on the person involved and those close to them. It took a while for me to accept that I needed help, I had to accept that I did not have the answers to process what had happened and while it was hard, I had some serious reality checks along the way that helped me see that there was a future and that at some point in that future the weight of this disaster would lift. I know how lucky I was.
I had help from my wife, family and friends in facing up to the reality of what had happened to our lives. I was lucky too that I had the resources to engage with my creditors and the banks. Some people don’t have the support.
Some simply don’t have the two or three thousand euro needed to bring on board a Personal Insolvency Practitioner (PIP). You need money to go bankrupt. Many are terrified by the stigma Bankruptcy still carries in Ireland. More simply cannot bring themselves to face the reality of their situation and fall deeper and deeper into debt. All of this means one simple thing. Ten years on, the crash is still killing people.
Maybe you think I am being over dramatic but it is a plain fact. At a meeting I attended a few years ago, two of the men at my table are dead. Killed by the crash. Killed by their inability to manage their debt, their guilt, and their terrible sense of personal failure. Most of all killed by a sense of despair.
If I achieve nothing else in writing this I want to speak to one of the tens of thousands of Irish people who Official Ireland want to pretend don’t exist.
To those men and women who are still bowed down by massive debts and unpayable mortgages: the biggest mistake you can make is to believe you have no future. You have a future. Your life can have a second act.
Part of my coping with the pressure of my situation was getting more involved in my community. I was asked to attend a meeting on a new project that was starting in Sligo focussing on improving relationships between the business communities and the Local Authority and to complete specific projects that would enhance the town.
Even though I was sceptical that it would work, the project needed businesses to volunteer to help complete the projects. So I volunteered, which at the time, for me, was a big step forward.
Part of the work was meeting and visiting other towns that had improved and made progress and we were to see what could be adapted and used to the same effect in Sligo. We car pooled to different places which meant I had to engage, had to talk, I was asked questions and for the first time in a long time – had a different topic of conversation. I met people along the way that four years later - I am still in contact with. I can’t tell you how much this meant to me. It was an experience that opened possibilities in my mind that I had something to contribute, that all was not over or lost and that my involvement as part of the team made a difference.
So for those people still under this weight of debt - Get Help. Ask for it. Open the post. Talk to bank. Answer the blocked numbers on your phone. Tell your wife or husband the whole story. Talk to a Personal Insolvency Practitioner (PIP). The minute you do that, the moment you start to tell yourself and others the truth, your life will begin to get better, slowly and by inches.
But it will get better. Let go of the guilt. It’s not doing you, your family or anyone else any good. I am still the same person today as I was last week and will be the same person in a week’s time and a month’s time. If you are under this weight, please start talking - You can have future, you have a second act and you and your family deserve one.