Offshore tax scandal: low standards in high places
The Ansbacher Deposits, 1997-2002
The Ansbacher deposits story was a huge event in Irish journalism that moved constantly between the politics and business pages of Irish newspapers over a period of years.
On Tuesday, July 1st, 1997, a barrister for the McCracken tribunal stood up in Dublin Castle and reported on the tribunal’s progress over the previous two months in its efforts to prove that money paid by businessman Ben Dunne had ended up with former taoiseach Charles Haughey.
As reporter Frank McNally put it in the next day’s edition of The Irish Times, when Denis McCullough SC outlined how the tribunal had followed a money trail that led from Dublin to the Cayman Islands and back, and said he would hereafter refer to a set of associated bank accounts as “the Ansbacher deposits”, the story took on the characteristics of a John Grisham novel.
Ansbacher was a bank in the Cayman Islands, but the nominally offshore money in the deposits was in fact held in Guinness & Mahon Bank, on Dublin’s College Green. The tribunal established that £1.3 million of the total held in the deposits belonged to Haughey, but it was McCullough’s declaration that the overall amount on deposit was between £30 million to £40 million that caught the public’s imagination.
At the time a large house in an established suburb in south Dublin could be bought for about a £250,000.
Immediately after McCullough’s disclosures, the Irish media was filled with thoughts of a “golden circle” linked to Haughey that might involve some of the most powerful figures in Irish business.
Eventually High Court inspectors were appointed to investigate the deposits and the Moriarty tribunal, successor to McCracken, was asked to examine any links between the deposits and holders of public office. Publication of the Ansbacher inspectors’ report 2002, which named those with money in the accounts, was described by the then leader of the PDs, Mary Harney, as a watershed moment in Irish public life.
The Revenue Commissioners’ yield to date arising from settlements with 142 people and companies who had money in the accounts, is approximately €113 million. Not everyone with money in the deposits necessarily owed tax.
The story in the media
From the moment Denis McCullough sat down in Dublin Castle the hunt was on in the national media to name as many as possible of the people who had Ansbacher deposits. Over the coming years, each disclosure in that regard was delivered with a sense of occasion.
Some who had been associated with the deposits fought desperately to keep their names out of the public domain. Given that many of the depositors were senior business figures, the story featured regularly on the business pages of The Irish Times, while the fact that the deposits were run by a man dubbed “Haughey’s bagman”, the late Des Traynor, meant there was always a political overtone to the affair.
“Captains of industry who sailed greedily onto the Cayman rocks” was the headline on a piece by John McManus in the business pages of The Irish Times in 2002 and which sifted the inspectors’ report, identifying some of those named.
That the late Don Reid, a former chairman of The Irish Times, was mentioned in the report as giving advice to some of the depositors, was noted, as was the fact that one of the Cayman trusts linked to the deposits was established by Cork businessman Richard Wood, who was a trustee of The Irish Times.
In the end it became apparent that membership of the Ansbacher club, so to speak, was a reflection of who Traynor had happened to come into contact with over the course of his career, rather than anything to do with payments to Haughey or any nexis of corruption.
That said, Traynor and the deposits were key to the way Haughey was able to live beyond his means for most of his life, courtesy of payments from some of the richest figures in Irish business.
The Ansbacher story dealt a huge blow to the reputation of Irish business, in particular because Traynor, during part of his time as chairman of CRH, kept the Ansbacher files in his CRH office and conducted his Ansbacher business from there. The scandal introduced the public to the secretive world of offshore banking and re-enforced suspicions about improper connections at the top level of Irish public life.
The response of Mary Harney, then minister for enterprise, trade and employment, acted as a counterweight to this. She established a flurry of company law inquiries, initiated a major overhaul of company law and established the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement.
Up to 1997, monitoring and enforcing company law was one of a number of functions assigned to two civil servants in Harney’s department. But that all changed after McCullough’s disclosure.
The story was one of a number of corporate scandals that served to transform business journalism into a more aggressive, probing profession. Business stories, and scandals, began to feature regularly on the front pages of most newspapers, a pattern that persists to this day.
Colm Keena’s book, the Ansbacher Conspiracy, was published by Gill and Macmillan