Access to Ireland’s Register of Beneficial Ownership (RBO) is being restored for Revenue officials, An Garda Síochána and other State agents but with limited if any information now available to the wider public, including media and anti-corruption campaigners, the Irish Independent has established.
All access to the Irish register was shut down at the end of November following a controversial ruling by a top EU court which found public access to it and similar registers across the European Union, that had been set up to boost transparency and help root out corruption, was incompatible with business owners’ privacy rights.
In the wake of that ruling, the Irish Registrar of Beneficial Ownership, a public official appointed under the authority of the Tánaiste and Enterprise Minister Leo Varadkar, temporarily suspended all access to the register on November 29.
A spokesperson for the Department of Enterprise said that decision was taken in light of the European court ruling and in order to facilitate an IT solution which will provide access to the RBO in accordance with the court ruling.
The spokesperson said the Department expected access to be restored yesterday evening to competent authorities and designated persons.
Only limited information will be available to other parties “in accordance with this (EU court) ruling”.
That means the detailed information about who owns businesses will be available to Government officials and agents, who have always had access to greater detail than the general public to information on the register, but it is unclear what – if any – information the wider public including researchers, media and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can now access.
Under EU anti-money laundering legislation, member states were required to set up and maintain a Register of Beneficial Ownership of entities established in their jurisdiction.
Transparency was seen as vital in unmasking owners hiding behind often complex, cross-border, webs of shelf companies.
However, in November the European Court of Justice ruled that allowing the general public unrestricted access to beneficial ownership details “constitutes a serious interference with the fundamental rights to respect for private life and to the protection of personal data”.
Campaign group Transparency International has said the decision could see the fight against corruption, organised crime and tax evasion set back 30 years, but governments’ hands are tied by the ruling.
Hundreds of thousands of Irish companies have registered their ownership details with the RBO, which was searchable by law enforcement agencies, as well as the media and members of the public. While a failure by a company to register ownership details on the RBO within a specified timeframe can attract stiff fines of up to €500,000, the database has also exposed continuing and serious weaknesses in Ireland’s company registration process.
Many fake companies, for example, do not register ownership details with the RBO and can continue to operate.