An Irishman's Diary


IT’S NOT the worst aspect of the crisis, I know, but I wonder how the AIB’s school competition – the so-called “Build a Bank Challenge” - is holding up under recent events.

The annual challenge is aimed at transition or fifth-year students, who are asked to create and run a bank. Describing this as an “exciting opportunity”, the official website says it allows participants “to be involved in all aspects of banking, such as sourcing new customers. . .encouraging regular savings, [finding] new ways to bank such as phone & internet. . .providing ongoing customer service. . .and keeping accurate financial records - in fact, everything it takes to run a bank!”

Maybe that was everything it took to run a bank when the list was written. In light of what we now know, you could probably add a few new skills. But in one sense, I suppose, the competition’s 2009 version should be even more exciting than usual. After all, like the students, the banks are themselves going through something of a transition year currently (although many top executives may also be getting their Leaving Certs by the end of it).

How different things were when the competition started several years ago, at a time when the Celtic Tiger was still roaring. The heady confidence of that era was brought back to me by an old internet discussion I came across yesterday – from December 2005 – between participants in that year’s Build-a-Bank challenge. Here’s a brief extract: an exchange between “Jennyq”, from Tipperary, and “The Dazzler” from Leitrim.

Jennyq: “Anybody else here taking part in the AIB school bank competition? Ive been picked as bank manager for my school’s branch this year, & we've just taken over from last year’s group. Running it doesn’t seem to be too much hard work, now we just need a killer idea for the competition.”

The Dazzler: “Target the poor people for Christmas and screw them on the interest!”

Ah, the idealism of youth – it’s so refreshing. I hate to think that the current generation of would-be bankers will be leaving school in a recession and that, even assuming they find a job, they will be paying for the clean-up of the real banking system for years, if not decades, to come. I just hope it doesn’t make them cynical.

MAYBE, given the central problem now confronting it, the Government should consider sponsoring a “Build-a-Toxic-Bank Challenge” for schools.

Such a competition might give the Minister for Finance some much-needed ideas about what to do with Anglo Irish and the write-offs of other institutions. Personally, I’m just as clueless about this as the Cabinet seems to be. But one thing I do feel strongly about is that the mooted “bad bank” should not be a behind-closed-doors operation.

On the contrary. Even if members of the public will not be making deposits there, they should be able to visit it daily, during working hours. It should also be a compulsory stop for school tours. In fact, there should be a visitor centre with educational exhibits explaining how the whole mess happened and what’s being done about it. A gift shop would be optional.

The model I have in mind for this already exists in the Irish-American town of Butte, Montana. No, it’s not a bad bank. But it’s a big hole in the ground, full of toxic material. Which is essentially the same thing.

The Berkeley Pit, as it’s called, is the result of another boom: the century or so during which massive copper deposits made Butte the “richest hill on earth”. The pit is where the open mining happened. When the mining stopped, it became a tailings pond. Now it’s a giant, red-brown lake full not only of copper but also of such interesting chemicals as arsenic. When a flock of swans made the mistake of landing on it a few years ago, they all died.

It would cost too much to drain the pit completely. Besides which, it currently serves as a safety mechanism, drawing the various poisons out of the vast labyrinth of old mine shafts and thereby safeguarding the local water table. So, instead, the recently built treatment plant just drains a little of the lake from time to time, when levels get too high.

Stuck with this apocalyptic nightmare in the middle of town, and with a clean-up that will last indefinitely, the locals made the best of a very bad job. They have established Butte as a kind of centre of excellence in environmental disaster management. They built a viewing platform from which tourists could visit the lake safely (unlike the swans). They put up educational signs. And yes, they opened a gift shop.

I don’t know if Ireland’s bad bank would be a major tourist draw: other countries will have similar facilities soon, bigger and more spectacular than ours. But the public element is nevertheless essential. However unpleasant it is to contemplate, people should be encouraged, in the buzz phrase, to “take ownership” of the clean-up – all the more so because they already have ownership of the bank.

The Berkeley Pit/bad bank analogy is a crude one, I admit. In fact, even as a metaphor, it doesn’t fully stand up. Embarrassing as it may be for the people of Butte, their toxic pit has one key advantage over the Irish banking crisis. At least they know where the bottom is.