We were both students in the early summer of 1986, but my ordination was imminent and we were determined to go on a camping holiday in Britanny. It would mean getting by on about £10 a day when we were there, but that was no great problem – baguettes and cheese were cheap, and wine could still be bought for 50 pence a bottle. During the college year we had managed to save five hundred Irish pounds and as the end of term approached, I went to the bank on College Green in Dublin to get the money changed into Sterling so that we would could return to Northern Ireland with money for a tent and travelling expenses. The exchange rate was not favourable, the Irish Punt being only worth 80p Sterling, but we had no money anywhere else.
I went to the foreign exchange desk and said I would like to exchange our IR£500 for Sterling. The woman glared at me, “You are supposed to have prior clearance to exchange that much”.
I explained that it was our holiday savings and she sourly conceded that on this occasion she would let me have the money.
I had heard of exchange controls, but never thought that they would apply to the little amount that we had. I wondered how businesses managed to operate if this was the regime.
The incident comes to mind each time I read of Bertie Ahern’s dealings with the Mahon Tribunal and his account of a lodgment of a large cash sum, whatever the amount, £30,000 Sterling or US$45,000. The Maastricht Treaty had come into force by then – there was the free movement of money, goods and services (except for those the Irish Government decided it wanted to tax), but I wonder if a dour faced woman stared through the glass at him and demanded to know his business. Did he ever have to explain what the money was for?
Even now a large lodgment flashes up on bank managers’ monitors – they want to know where the money has come from. Last year I had to write to a bank and explain that money electronically transferred into our account was a bequest, they could see from the statement that it was from a solicitor.
There seems one law for nobodies like me and another for the Taoiseach and his friends.