I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to address the committee about an issue that has the potential to change our history. Today I am asking members to support an amendment to the Dormant Accounts Act to place an obligation on banks to give back property that is being held in safekeeping on behalf of deceased Irish citizens.
I first became aware of safekeeping in the 1990s when I worked in the Bank of Ireland group. I will start by recalibrating the committee's perception of safekeeping. If members are anything like me, when they think of the term safekeeping, they imagine a vault with rows of safety deposit boxes, each requiring two keys to open. That is not how it worked. In 1907, if one had an item that one wanted to lodge for safekeeping, one would package the item and give it to the bank manager. It is important to note that the bank manager did not know what was in the package. He or she would simply note the deposit in the safekeeping register, issue a receipt and place the envelope, package or box in the safe alongside all of the other items. That is what took me by surprise when I came to work in the Bank of Ireland in Rathmines in 1993 and started to ask questions about all of the envelopes, parcels and boxes in the safe there. One could tell by their shape what was in some packages, paintings for example, but one would have no idea what was in the majority.
Bank of Ireland in Rathmines opened its doors in 1907 and the bank is still holding hundreds of items from that time onwards. When I pointed out to the manager that it is entirely likely that the original customers are now deceased, his reaction was simply that his job was to keep the items safe and that they were safe. Therein lies the opportunity with safekeeping. At their height, Bank of Ireland and AIB had over 700 bank branches between them and every single one of those had a vault and every single vault held items for safekeeping. Every city, town and borough throughout Ireland has potential beneficiaries of this property. However, it is not only specific citizens who would benefit from a change in policy in this area. The historic and cultural richness of this property cannot be underestimated. Banks in Ireland have provided safekeeping services ever since they have operated as banks and much of the property they now hold is up to 200 years old. When one pauses to consider that any item that was deposited for safekeeping was of sufficiently significant monetary or sentimental value to warrant the protection afforded by a bank, one must assume that this property now represents a vast reservoir of our own culture and heritage.
Members are probably keen to understand what types of property are held in bank vaults and I can give them a first-hand account based on my own experience. I have seen paintings that are so large they are held on pallets. I have seen single envelopes inscribed with the words “to be opened on my death”, which could contain someone’s last will and testament, a deed, a confession or a share certificate. I have seen currency, antiques, weapons and war memorabilia. Even Charlie McCreevy speculated in the original debates on the dormant accounts legislation that banks could be holding the proceeds of bank robberies in their own safes. We must not lose sight of the fact that the majority of this property is unknown. The knowledge I possess comes from a small number of items that were opened in extremely concessionary circumstances or a result of damage to the container itself.
The question arises as to who owns this property now. The legal position is explicit. The property remains part of the estate of the original deposit maker. For those items that are supported by clear records, there undoubtedly would be a huge effort involved in locating current beneficiaries and I will comment later on how this effort can be curtailed. However in many cases, especially for older deposits, the bank records are at best, vague or at worst, non-existent. Legal advice would suggest that where there is no clear evidence of ownership outside of the item, it is appropriate to open it to see if ownership can be established from the contents. If it is not possible to establish ownership after this exercise, then the property would vest in the State under various statutory instruments, most notably the National Monuments Act and the Succession Act. All of this is irrelevant because at present, there is no active appetite from the banking fraternity to address or engage with this issue, which is understandable given some of the legal exposures it presents for banks. The elephant in the room with regard to this property rests in the fact that numerous estates have been settled after receiving erroneous confirmation from banks regarding the accounts they held. On the death of a client, it is routine practice for their legal representatives to establish the asset base and in a banking context, this would take the form of a request for detail of that client's bank accounts. In many cases the bank may not have captured the item in safekeeping and were it to now to reunite such an item with the beneficiaries of an estate, this would give rise to issues of underpayment of capital acquisitions tax, penalties and interest. It also raises questions of proper succession, given that we are in the realms of property being passed through numerous generations and numerous estates.
Despite the legal complexities, my own research has led me to form the view that there never has been any legal impediment to banks dealing with this property voluntarily. However, it is clear that there needs to be some form of legal impetus compelling banks to act and the most appropriate instrument to use is the Dormant Accounts Act. Careful consideration, however, must be given to the manner in which the legal obligations are introduced. I tentatively suggest that any amendment should aim to satisfy three specific criteria. First, we must acknowledge that although the banks own this problem, they did not intentionally create it. As such, some form of amnesty should be granted insulating them from action arising from their non-engagement. Second, the legal complexities are likely to be considerably more onerous for property deposited after the creation of the Irish State and as such I would propose that the dormancy period of 15 years set out in the current Act be extended to 100 years in any amendment pertaining to this property. Third, many of these deposits will be currency and other monetary chattels such as gold bullion, Krugerrands and so on, which is capable of being converted to currency and ultimately given back, should a claim ever be made. We also need to be cognisant of the fact that much of this property will be of cultural and historic value and should not be disposed of and in that context, the amendment should empower the State to take possession of these items. It is worth mentioning that although this property is largely safe, we are already at risk of losing some as there is evidence that Danske Bank has moved up to 2,000 safekeeping items out of the Irish State, potentially beyond the reach of any domestic legislation.
I will leave the committee with a description of one item. This item, a chest, is held in the vault in the Bank of Ireland branch in College Green. It sits on a shelf alongside thousands of other items. The chest is slightly smaller than the rectangular coal bucket most of us would have had in our family homes. It has a domed roof and a large cast iron lock, which secures a length of metal chain that wraps all sides of the chest.
Rope is woven through the links of the chain, intermittently knotted. There is candle wax on the knots. This item was deposited for safekeeping in the 1870s and nobody knows what it contains. Members can let their minds wander. They will find it hard to convince me that, whatever it contains, it will not change or perhaps mould our view of history. This is not Pandora’s box. This is our heritage, boxed off.