This article was first published in the January 2016 Ireland edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

It was back in 2012 when AB Ireland last caught up with Tom Murray FCCA. One of the country’s leading insolvency practitioners, the Dublin man was just about to take on the role of president of ACCA Ireland, and it was not difficult to see how his day job made him an apposite choice at a time when the country’s prospects looked dim indeed. With business and consumer confidence, not to mention property prices, at low ebbs, many were convinced that Ireland’s journey back to economic recovery would be, at best, a protracted and painful affair.

In conversation with Murray nearly four years later, it is hard not to be reminded of the dictum that ‘in Ireland the inevitable never happens and the unexpected constantly occurs’.

To the surprise of many, the country has experienced the most robust of economic rebounds, with a burgeoning tax take and the highest growth levels in the EU. However, the more modest hope of a legal structure that would allow for a fresh beginning for those caught in Celtic Tiger debt traps – which seemed a far more achievable aspiration back in 2012 – has been far less successfully realised.

Both are areas close to Murray’s heart. Friel Stafford, the advisory firm that he has been partner of since 2008, has built its reputation in the distinct but complementary fields of corporate finance and corporate and personal insolvency – ‘two sides of the same coin,’ Murray notes.


Personal insolvency has been a high-profile activity for the firm over the past few years as many individuals, as well as companies, sought its advice following the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. Murray recalls how, like others, he welcomed the arrival of the Personal Insolvency Act in 2012, which provided options for individuals with unsustainable personal or mortgage debt. Key among them were the debt settlement arrangement (DSA) and the personal insolvency arrangement (PIA), the latter allowing for an agreed settlement of secured and unsecured debt, typically over a six-year period. The act also updated the automatic discharge period for bankruptcy from 12 years to three, a figure designed to bring Ireland into line with European norms.

A speech given by the then minister for justice, equality and defence, Alan Shatter, at the ACCA Ireland president’s annual dinner in March 2013 underscored the optimism around the new act. The minister’s expectation back then was that, in the first full year of operation, the DSA and PIA would collectively see something like 15,000 applications, with a further 3,000 bankruptcy applications as well.

At the time, Murray voiced some concerns that the €3m limit on secured debt set out in the act was too low. He also hinted that getting accountants, bankers or debtors all on board for the common purpose of debt relief wasn’t likely to be a straightforward process. In hindsight, his misgivings underestimated the scale of the challenges ahead.

‘Everyone had great hopes the act would be a panacea to many people’s problems,’ says Murray. ‘It certainly hasn’t been. From the beginning, it was beset with problems in terms of the attitudes of certain creditors and because of the high bar set by the “reasonable standards of living” clause, which excluded a lot of people. While it has brought comfort and solutions to some people, it’s a very small proportion of what was envisaged.’

The low uptake hasn’t been lost on the government, which brought in a number of amendments in 2015 to address the deficiencies of the original act.

Among the most significant was to give courts the power to impose proposals on lenders if the courts find they have unreasonably rejected PIAs. ‘It will be fascinating to see, when a test case is ultimately taken, how this review process will pan out and what percentage of PIAs are challenged in this way.

Further legislation before the Dáil in late 2015 addressed reducing the discharge term for bankruptcy from three years to one year,’ Murray says.

Legal shortcomings notwithstanding, Murray says that work in this area continues to be very rewarding. ‘One of the most important things you can do in the area of insolvency is to help people get perspective, and to understand the exact scenario they are in, as opposed to the imagined one. A lot of relief comes to people when they are given the facts, and when they see a pathway through the situation, maybe for the first time.’

Corporate insolvency has been an equally strong suit for the business over the last eight years, with ‘peak insolvency’ now appearing to have passed. Murray recalls how in 2010 and 2011 ‘there was such a consistent stream of work, which seemed beyond most people’s anticipation of how bad things could get.

It was not sector-specific and it was spread across all geographic locations. No one was spared.’

However, from mid-2013 onwards, a steady levelling off has taken place, and, in 2015 the number of liquidations was two-thirds of what it was in 2013.

Not the end of the world

While the process has resulted in difficult experiences for many business people, Murray says that, as with personal insolvency, ‘the process can bring a huge amount of clarity and peace of mind. The participants see that life does go on. There are a lot worse things that can happen to you than an insolvency.’

Murray also notes some interesting positives that may come into play as economic recovery gains traction. ‘There’s a sense that a generation of people have emerged from this much more experienced and better in business. It’s often a hackneyed point but if you look at the US, you see that their attitude is that being through a corporate failure is part of your business education.

We are beginning to recognise that here too.’

With the appetite for growth back on the agenda of Irish businesses, Murray has also seen a tempo shift in terms of uptake of the firm’s corporate finance services. ‘Buyers and sellers are returning to the markets, and there are more and more opportunities to get finance for these transactions. So I am finding that significantly more of my time is dedicated to corporate finance work – raising funds, debt and equity for companies, advising on MBOs [management buyouts], from the point of view of the investment team and the vendors, and advising on the sales of business.’

In spite of that rekindling of the entrepreneurial spirit, one of the biggest issues that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have faced over the past few years, namely the funding crisis, hasn’t gone away. Part of the challenge, Murray says, is ‘about educating our entrepreneurial class that banks are there to provide working capital, not risk capital. Once you understand that, it becomes about searching for alternative sources.’

That said, he also stresses that the issue of SMEs getting access to working capital is a real and a live one. ‘To address that, we need more than just lip service from government. There is an onus on both government and the banking sector to look more closely at the issue. A significant amount of SMEs are not getting credit from their banks and they don’t understand why. They need to get clarity as to what the lending criteria are, what the parameters for lending are, and what the alternatives are. If that isn’t resolved, it is one of the things that could hamper the ongoing recovery of the economy.’

Council role

A native of Portmarnock, north County Dublin, Murray entered the accounting profession on leaving school, becoming a member of ACCA in 1997. His participation in the organisational side of ACCA has been relatively seamless since then: he joined the Leinster Society on the day he became an ACCA, subsequently served on the practitioners’ network, as ACCA Ireland president in 2012, and since 2013 has been a member of ACCA Council, ACCA’s primary governance body.

‘Running for Council was a very easy decision for me to make,’ he says.’ It was a natural progression in the relationship I’ve had with ACCA since becoming a member.’ Gaining insight, as ACCA Ireland president, of ACCA’s international dimension also helped influence his decision to take the next step. ’Up until then, I probably hadn’t appreciated the size and global nature of the organisation,’ he says.

Being a member of ACCA Council has allowed him to witness and participate in ACCA’s development and he is particularly excited about the progress of its ambitious growth strategy to 2020, and the impact this is having in diverse communities around the world. ‘One of the key things that distinguishes ACCA from other accountancy bodies is its open access policies: you don’t have to have gone to university, or have been apprenticed or articled to another accountant to be a member,’ he says. ‘When I hear and see the stories of people from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds around the world who, with the support of their communities, enter the profession, qualify and then support the community back, you begin to see what ACCA does and how it is different from other professional bodies in our field.’

Murray is one of five Irish members who are currently serving on Council and he attributes that strong Irish presence to a number of factors, key among them being the country’s very engaged membership. ‘We have a high proportion of members in Ireland who are engaged with the association and involved in it,’ he says. ‘We have very good support from Leeson Park [ACCA Ireland headquarters], very active committees, healthy membership in those committees, and engaged members who see the benefit of commitment to ACCA in terms of professional and personal development.’


Earlier this year, Murray was appointed by the minister for jobs, enterprise and innovation, Richard Bruton, to the board of the National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (NIBRT). Building on his experience of advising boards of directors across a wide range of industries, it also ties in with Murray’s long-term career goals of supporting businesses in their push to develop into competitive and innovative organisations.

‘NIBRT offers a quality training and research experience that hasn’t been possible up to now anywhere in the world,’ says Murray. ‘It will be very significant to the country’s inward investment strategy and plays into the idea that, while technology is going to be big part of Ireland Inc’s offering in the years ahead, what’s really going to differentiate us in the future is talent.

Multinational companies are drawn to Ireland in no small part because of the talent we have here, and NIBRT shows that we are taking this seriously as a country.’

With such an intensive schedule of executive and non-executive roles, all having to accommodate themselves around the dynamics of family life, Murray could be forgiven if he chose a benign use for any downtime.

Recently, however, he’s made the decision to give time back to the local community in the role of football coach. ‘I was an enthusiastic but not very talented football player as a child and now as an adult I’ve started coaching our local youth soccer team. The pitch is a great place to release whatever small frustrations you’ve experienced during the week. It’s also very rewarding to train a team and, in fairness, the skills of being a football manager are not much different from being a manager in a business.’

Donal Nugent, journalist