This week, Brian Lenihan the Irish Finance Minister, warned that the nation faced the challenge of its life. The doom-mongering came as he outlined plans for Ireland to set-up a national asset management agency (Europe’s first ‘bad bank’, another first from Ireland) to take over an estimated Euro80 – 90 billion of bad loans extended by local domestic banks to developers and property companies that now look as if they will not be able to repay. At the heart of Brian’s measures is a levy of 4 per cent of gross income on anyone earning more than Euro75k, rising to 6 per cent for those earning above Euro175k. The levy is on top of income tax. So here we have it: the banks bail out the developers, the government bails out the banks, and the tax-payer bails out the government, in particular the middle-class tax payer. There are two things I wanted to say about this turn of events.
One, I’m intrigued by the notion of a bad bank: what if we could introduce it into other aspects of our lives? What if there were a ‘bad me’ and a ‘good me?’ You could get home after a two-day Guinness-driven bender and avoid any arguments by simply depositing it in the ‘bad me’ bank. Why not have that dessert even though you’re already full and could do with losing some weight? The healthy food goes in the ‘thin me’ and the chocolate fudge sundae is deposited in the ‘fat me’ bank. The ‘bad bank’ is a peculiar notion and one I think must have been thought up by a Catholic – someone at any rate who had a full understanding of purgatory, a limbo place to put things that shouldn’t have happened and you’d like to pretend don’t exist.
Two, the last ‘challenge of the nation’ was arguably the Great Famine, the main reason for the Irish Diaspora as we know it today. My take on the famine years as a lay historian was that the middle classes benefited then – the poor starved and were driven away, the landlords fled and headed back to England, leaving only the shop owners and middle-men to run the place and make the money. The famine brought about the middle-classes in Ireland. I just thought it ironic that in this current challenge, as Brian Lenihan would have it, that it is those very middle-classes who bear the biggest brunt. Now that doesn’t make me happy, it’s just an observation.