Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 18 November 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement
Engagement with the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains
We are now in public session. Oireachtas members attending the meeting remotely should do so from within the Leinster House campus. Remote participation from outside the campus is not possible by ruling of the House.
Members and all those in attendance are asked to exercise personal responsibility in protecting themselves and others from the risk of contracting Covid-19. They are strongly advised to practise good hand hygiene. Every second seat has been removed to facilitate social distancing and I ask people not to move chairs from their current positions. An appropriate level of social distancing should always be maintained, during and after the meeting. Masks, preferably of medical grade, should be worn at all times during the meeting, except when speaking. I ask for members' co-operation in that regard.
Regarding the rotation of speakers during the meeting, I suggest a continuation of the usual system of 15-minute slots, if that is agreeable. Members of the Fianna Fáil Party will be followed by those of Fine Gael and Sinn Féin. Representatives of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, SDLP, and the Alliance Party will be the next to participate, and they will be followed by Independents and members of Aontú. They will be followed by members of Sinn Féin, again, the Labour Party and the Green Party. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Our engagement today is with Mr. Tim Dalton, commissioner, Mrs. Rosalie Flanagan, commissioner, and Mr. Geoff Knupfer, lead forensic scientist and investigator from the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains, ICLVR. On behalf of the committee, I welcome them to today's meeting.
I will now read the notice regarding privilege, which is universal to all our meetings. The evidence of witnesses physically present or who give evidence from within the parliamentary precincts is protected pursuant to both the Constitution and statute by absolute privilege. However, witnesses and participants who are to give evidence from a location outside the parliamentary precincts are asked to note that they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness giving evidence from within the parliamentary precincts does and may consider it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter. Witnesses are also asked to note that only evidence connected with the subject matter of the proceedings should be given and should respect directions given by the Chair and the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should neither criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech which might be regarded as damaging to the person's or entity's good name.
Before I call our first witness, I would like to express on behalf of our Oireachtas committee our deepest condolences to the Currie family and to our committee colleague, Senator Emer Currie, on the sad passing of her father, Austin Currie, who was a member of Governments both North and South during his political life. I propose that the committee writes to the Currie family. As Chairman, I will write that letter on behalf of the committee to express our condolences if that is agreed.
I second that proposal. I had the privilege of serving here in Dáil Éireann with the late Austin Currie, who was always a gentleman and a great advocate, and had a very long and noble political career. I join with the Chairman and every other member of the committee in extending our sincere sympathies to his widow and to all the family, particularly our colleague, Emer.
I thank the Deputy very much. I will now call our witnesses in the order they have indicated to the clerk that they will speak. Mr. Dalton will be followed by Mrs. Flanagan and then Mr. Knupfer. I hope I have the correct pronunciations. Mr. Dalton might now address the meeting.
Mr. Tim Dalton:
I thank the Chairman for inviting us to appear before this committee. We very much appreciate the interest which the committee has shown in our work. My name is Tim Dalton and I was appointed by the two Governments in 2018 as an ICLVR commissioner. I am accompanied at the meeting by Commissioner Rosalie Flanagan, who was appointed earlier this year, also by the two Governments. We are joined also by Mr. Geoff Knupfer, the commission's lead forensic scientist and investigator, who was a member of the ICLVR team that met this committee in January 2018. Mr. Knupfer has, as the need arises, worked with the commission since 2005. During this time, he has played a central role in all of the commission's work and we are grateful to him for his ready availability and for the skill and expertise he has always brought to the task. With the Chairman's agreement, both Commissioner Flanagan and Mr. Knupfer will address the committee shortly.
At the outset, I would like to acknowledge the enormous contribution made to the work of the ICLVR by my predecessor, the late Frank Murray, who most members probably knew, and also by Ms Flanagan's predecessor, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, who has retired as commissioner. Both men were members of the delegation which met this committee in 2018.
As members will know, the commission is one of the reconciliation outcomes of the Good Friday Agreement, which provided that it was essential to acknowledge and address the suffering of the victims of violence as a necessary element of reconciliation. The commission was established on the basis of an intergovernmental agreement between the Irish and British Governments signed in April 1999. That agreement was then implemented by means of legislation enacted in both jurisdictions.
One of the key features of our situation legally is that we are an independent and non-political body. Our task, in a nutshell, is to locate and return to their families the remains of individuals killed and secretly buried by the IRA in the course of the Northern Troubles. That is broadly between the early 1970s and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Our job, as I have mentioned, is simply to search for, hopefully recover and return remains. It is not our role to comment on other aspects of policy or practice relating to the Troubles.
Another key feature of our governing legislation is that it legally guarantees that any information given to us or to our agents in the course of our work must be treated as absolutely confidential and can be used only for the purpose of locating remains. This is underpinned by provisions rendering information we receive inadmissible in evidence in criminal proceedings and by placing restrictions on the disclosing of information and further restrictions on the forensic testing of human and other remains that may be found. It is important that persons who might have relevant information but might be reluctant to share it with us should know that this confidentiality rule is there and that it is strictly observed at all times since we were established.
Finally, we are happy to report the continuing support and co-operation of both Governments and of the police services on both sides, the contribution of the Department of Justice and Northern Ireland Office, NIO, personnel, the contribution of various experts and contractors we have engaged as needed over the years and the co-operation of people within the republican community who have guided us towards relevant information sources. Mr. Knupfer will speak about the cases that have been successfully concluded and those that yet remain to be finalised.
The story of the disappeared is one of the most tragic of the Troubles and we are honoured to have the opportunity of attempting to ease the pain it brought by recovering remains and returning them to their families. Once again, we are appealing for information that might help us complete our task, however insignificant that information may appear to be, and our earnest request is that this distinguished committee would lend its support to that appeal. I will now ask Commissioner Flanagan to address the committee.
Mrs. Rosalie Flanagan:
I thank the Chairman for inviting us to attend this meeting. The global pandemic has had a major impact on many aspects of all our lives for almost two years now, including the need to be cautious about travelling and meeting others. While I would very much have welcomed the opportunity to appear before the committee in person today, and it is disappointing to be unable to do so, I am most grateful that I can attend virtually instead and look forward to our discussion.
I am also grateful to my fellow commissioner, Tim Dalton, for setting out the role and purpose of the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains and the ongoing efforts to complete our work.
As Mr. Dalton has said, I was appointed as the UK commissioner in January this year. I was honoured to accept this appointment to such an important body and I hope to have the opportunity to contribute to the successful location of some or all of the victims who have not yet been found and to giving their families the chance to give them the funerals and burials they have so long desired.
While we have not yet been able to meet face to face, I have had a number of virtual meetings with colleagues since my appointment. It goes without saying, however, that the work of the investigators has been greatly affected and progress hampered by the Covid-19 restrictions. We are very conscious that the three people whose remains have not yet been located disappeared in the 1970s and those who may have information which can be of assistance to us are now likely to be in their 70s or older. I hope sincerely that as we emerge from this period, we will see new information coming forward before it is too late.
As the committee knows, an important aspect of the work of the commission over the years has been meeting and supporting the family members of the disappeared, both those whose remains have been recovered and those for whom the search continues. Unfortunately, it has not yet been possible for us to attend any events with the families this year. It is something I hope we can do perhaps in 2022.
Members of the committee may be aware of the WAVE Trauma Centre which provides support and care to anyone bereaved, injured or traumatised through the Troubles in Northern Ireland. WAVE provides particular care to the families of the disappeared. I would like to acknowledge and pay tribute to the tremendous support that the WAVE organisation, and its CEO, Ms Sandra Peake in particular, have provided to the families over the years and continue to provide during the challenging circumstances of the pandemic.
In conclusion, I would reiterate the vital importance to us of new information and urge the members of this committee to take any steps they can to assist us in obtaining it. I am pleased to hand over now to Mr. Geoff Knupfer, the head of our investigation team, to provide some further details about what has happened since the commissioners last appeared before this committee and to respond to any questions committee members may have.
I thank Mrs. Flanagan very much. I understand that Mr. Knupfer will be with us momentarily, as he is rebooting his computer. If he has not managed to do this yet we will commence our rotation of speakers, if that is in order, and we will bring Mr Knupfer in then when he is available, when the current contributor has finished.
I welcome the clarity which the presence of our witnesses is bringing to us here today. In the first instance, in that any information given to our witnesses will be kept completely in secret and cannot and never has been used in any court of law, or for any other purpose whatsoever, other than in finding the remains of the victims. I can understand, having met Mr. Oliver McVeigh recently in Belfast, along with our colleagues on the committee, how traumatic even after almost 40 years is that need for closure and demand for outcomes, as somebody out there must and does know what happened to those three men. It is very sad and tragic. The key point is that the conflict is over and there is no reason why anybody should fear giving information to the commission through the appropriate channels. I believe Mr. Knupfer is present now and I will invite his submission in a moment. The clarity that the commission is bringing to its search is very important. As people are ageing, this does not mean that there are not people who can still come forward where they are under no legal pressure, or there can be no negative outcome by way of prosecution, in respect of any information that they may give. There is also complete secrecy attached to such information. It behoves all of the political parties and none represented here today that we call on everybody who is aware of anybody who may have any information, no matter how small that information may seem to them, in respect of how important that may be to help bring closure to families who do not have the opportunity to give their loved ones a Christian burial. I invite Mr. Knupfer now to make his contribution, please.
Mr. Geoff Knupfer:
I thank Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, very much for the invitation to address today’s meeting. As the committee may be aware, the commission currently has 16 cases on its list of disappeared. To date, 13 victims have been recovered, 11 by the commission, leaving only three cases outstanding at this moment in time. They are: Joe Lynskey who disappeared in the summer of 1972; Columba McVeigh, who disappeared on or about 1 November 1975 and whose remains are believed to have been buried in Bragan Bog, County Monaghan and Robert Nairac, who was abducted from the Three Steps Inn, Drumintee, on 14 May 1977 and later murdered in Ravensdale, County Louth. It seems probable that his remains are buried in that general area.
As the committee have heard from Commissioner Flanagan, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic across these islands has severely hampered the operation of the commission team for the past 18 months or so. The travel of investigators to undertake face-to-face interviews and to visit potential sites was curtailed completely. In fact any activity which could not be conducted from home virtually ground to a halt. Thank goodness, hotels are now beginning to reopen and travel restrictions have largely been lifted. I am relieved to report that things on the operational side of the commission are gradually returning to some degree of normality.
Around the time we previously addressed the committee in 2018, we were in the process of making plans to commence a further search of Bragan Bog in County Monaghan to try to locate the remains of Columba McVeigh. This operation commenced in September 2018 but was suspended during the winter due to poor weather, restricted daylight hours and dangerous ground and working conditions. Work resumed in the summer of 2019 and concluded in September that year. Sadly, the remains of Columba McVeigh were not located.
Since the establishment of the commission in 1999 some 21 acres or 8.5 ha of Bragan Bog have now been searched. I should add that we are entirely satisfied that Columba was murdered and buried at Bragan and that we have not been intentionally misled in that respect. Unfortunately, his current whereabouts remain something of a mystery. It raises questions as to whether or not this is the correct location within the bog or whether for some reason or other his body could have been removed from that location. It would only have to be moved to, say, the other side of a track, and thus outside the search area, to entirely compromise the search process. As ever, we would be pleased to hear from anyone who has any information on this case, however trivial they consider it to be, it could be the vital link we are missing.
Inquiries and research into the other cases of Joe Lynskey and Robert Nairac continue. At this point in time, however, we have no fresh substantive information on either case sufficient to warrant a physical search. In fact the latter case, that of Robert Nairac, remains the only one for which we have never had sufficient information to merit a physical search. Again, we would welcome any information from the public on either of these cases.
We are particularly conscious that time marches on relentlessly. We know that some of those directly involved in these events have passed away in recent years. Others, we believe, might well be reluctant to engage because their families, friends or neighbours are totally unaware of their involvement in these sad events some 40 or 50 years ago. Despite this we would urge anyone with any relevant information, to please contact the commission directly as a matter of urgency or, if needs be, indirectly.
This is an entirely humanitarian process and we really do need help to return these lost souls to their loved ones for Christian burial. I remind everyone that since the inception of the commission in 1999, no one has ever been interviewed as a suspect, arrested, charged or convicted as a result of information that was passed to it on the disappeared. It is well known that such information can only be used to recover and repatriate victims. The commission is expressly forbidden by law to pass information on to other individuals or organisations.
In 2019, an anonymous donor put up the sum of US $60,000 by way of a reward for information which results in the recovery of one or more of the victims.
That reward has not been claimed to date. Anyone who wishes to claim the reward must contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or www.crimestoppers-uk.org.
We are aware that a recent television drama, "Bloodlands", referred to the work of the commission. It is important to clarify that this was an entirely fictional scenario. It did not relate in any way to any real commission case and the so-called "technology" deployed to locate human remains in the programme does not actually exist. The commission was not consulted prior to or during the writing of this script. However, we were made aware of the programme prior to its broadcast.
The commission is jointly funded by the Irish and UK Governments. In order to limit the commission's operational costs, the commission does not actually employ any full-time staff. A joint secretariat is provided by the staff of the Northern Ireland Office and the Department of Justice and other members of the commission work on a contractual basis or daily-rate basis only.
We continue to work very closely with the WAVE Trauma Centre. We are most grateful for the assistance they provide to the commission in its endeavours but, more importantly, for the truly remarkable level of care and support they provide to those victims of the Troubles who are on their books. We are indebted, indeed, to the CEO of WAVE, Ms Sandra Peake, and her staff.
I thank Mr. Knupfer for his address and the clarity which he is bringing to the needs of the commission to finalise the return or the identification of the remains and the recovery to the family.
For members who may have been a little late, in terms of our communications, I repeat that Fianna Fáil will be followed by Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Alliance, Independents, Deputy Tóibín of Aontú, Sinn Féin again, Labour and the Green Party. I call on Deputy Brendan Smith, who is present here, from Fianna Fáil. The Deputy has 15 minutes for him and his party, if any other colleague wishes to address the committee as well.
Like you, a Chathaoirligh, I welcome our three guests and their contributions. I commend them on the important work that they are carrying out on behalf of the State, and also Mrs. Rosalie Flanagan, as nominee of the British Government.
I proposed, in 2018, that the commission would be invited to address this committee's predecessor. I also proposed, this time, when we were drafting our work programme for this year, that the commission would be invited back to give us an update on its work. That was to give us in a parliamentary chamber the opportunity to endorse the important work and the difficult task that the commission has been assigned and that, hopefully, some coverage of our proceedings, be it in the print or broadcast media, might create that extra awareness that is needed, the coverage would get to the people who have information and who have not yet passed it on, and finally, their consciences might get to them and they would pass on that information. The three guests have outlined clearly that if a person passes on information it cannot be used for any other purposes and the Cathaoirleach outlined that clearly as well. People who provide information will not be prosecuted in relation to any of their misdeeds or any other misdemeanours, if they carried out some.
I have been familiar with the work of the victims' commission since 1998 because the late John Wilson, the former Tánaiste whom I had a very close working relationship with over many years, was the first person appointed by the Irish Government. I had the privilege of succeeding him as a Deputy for Cavan-Monaghan when he retired in 1992. At that time, without knowing the detail of any particular cases, I knew how difficult that work was from talking to John Wilson about it on a general basis. I note those who succeeded him. Mr. Bloomfield carried out admirable work, as did Mr. Frank Murray. It is important that we recognise the work of the people who served in the roles previously as well.
Unfortunately, there were very many reprehensible, vile and heinous crimes during the era known as the Troubles but I suppose the case of the 16 disappeared really is absolutely reprehensible. All murders, maiming of people and injuries inflicted on people are reprehensible but to abduct, kill and secretly bury persons and not have them returned to their families is beyond comprehension.
The task of the commission is to return to families the remains of persons killed by paramilitaries. The least that anybody deserves is a Christian burial. We can never emphasise enough how important it is.
We met Oliver McVeigh last week, as the Cathaoirleach said, Columba's brother. Mr. McVeigh appealed again to anybody with information or any organisation that they have, to put it mildly, a moral duty to pass on any relevant information and as a committee, we totally endorse that.
From speaking with families that the commission has worked with over years, I know they very much appreciate the commission's method in going about its business and the dignified, gracious and understanding manner in which it carries out that work. The commission is to be commended in that respect.
My purpose in suggesting that the commission come before the committee was, as I stated at the outset, to endorse publicly the important work of the commission and also to emphasise that the commission tasks are not yet complete, unfortunately. What we would like to see is, obviously, the other three bodies returned to their loved ones.
Two of my colleagues, Senators McGreehan and Blaney, hope to be with us later. They are attending the Seanad, which the Taoiseach is addressing.
As I stated earlier, John Wilson was appointed by the Government in May 1998, a month following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. That demonstrated the importance that the Governments at that time attached to this work because it was a month after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. What he was tasked with at that time was to review services and arrangements in place to meet the needs of victims of Northern Ireland violence. John Wilson was appointed. Mr. Bloomfield was appointed by the British Government subsequently to carry out that important task on behalf of both Governments.
The first report of the victims' commission, A Place and a Name, was published in July 1999. In one particular comment in regard to the disappeared, it states:
Anyone with the slightest shred of information on the possible location of bodies should make this known to the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains.
It is sad that today, at the end of 2021, we are appealing still for information so that the remains of innocent people murdered and buried in secret, and some of them abducted, murdered and secretly buried, have not yet been returned to their loved ones. That sentence is as relevant today, unfortunately, as it was when it was written in July 1999.
I endorse everything Deputy Brendan Smith says. The Deputy spoke of Senators who are unavoidably absent. We will hear their contributions when they come in, if that is okay, because the Taoiseach is addressing the Seanad. It is only appropriate that they would be there, and here, to speak. I call Deputy Carroll MacNeill of Fine Gael, who has 15 minutes.
I am a new Member of the Oireachtas and a new member of the committee. I want to ask the members of the commission about some of the details of their work, if they do not mind. I do not mind which of the commissioners chooses to respond based on how they organise their work.
Taking it through, where we have been to date, over the course of the Troubles there were 16 people disappeared. The Provisional IRA has admitted responsibility for 13 victims, mostly in a statement issued in 1999. One victim was admitted to by the INLA. No attribution has been given to the others. To date, the remains of 13 of the disappeared have been recovered, 11 of whom have been recovered through the commission's efforts.
I refer to the three victims to be located yet. I note in Mr. Geoff Knupfer's statement the commission has some information about the late Mr. McVeigh. Could they talk us through exactly where the commission is on each of them and on the previous instances, of the other pieces of information that came?
If possible, will he outline the way in which that information came? Was it in written form or did it come via different communication? How can we best understand how that work has been achieved to date?
Mr. Geoff Knupfer:
Some information comes directly. As Mr. Dalton explained, it is difficult to talk about these engagements but some information certainly comes directly to us. Other contacts come through intermediaries. It is always a problem where we do not have direct access to the person who is providing information. If it comes through a third party, there is a dilemma in not being able to ask the important questions, from our perspective. As an example, if we are examining a grave site, ideally we would like to speak to the people who dug that grave. They will know what the ground profile is like, what they encountered on the day, where they stood and what they saw. This is the sort of information we cannot get through third parties or, if we do, it will have been diluted in some way.
An issue we encountered in one case, without going into details, related to where discussions occurred prior to information being passed to the commission. This was decided, effectively, by committee, with a group of people sitting around a table and arriving at a conclusion regarding the detail they would provide to the commission. Unfortunately, in such circumstances, you tend to get the views of the loudest voice rather than those of the best informed. These are the sorts of problems we have encountered over the years, although on other occasions, the information has been excellent.
Another issue relates to the time gap between the events and the searching today. Memories fail or fade and, as I mentioned earlier, many people have passed away in the intervening years. In one case, again without going into details, people we could have talked to had died and they did so without having contacted the commission or passing on information via a third party. We urge anyone with any information, however trivial they believe it to be, to please contact us directly. If they are not prepared to do that or cannot do that, we urge them to come through a third party. We look forward to hearing from them.
This is entirely an intelligence-led operation. We are not plucking bits and pieces out of the sky but rather are waiting for people to contact us, and we will respond appropriately to any information received.
I am trying to get a sense of the pace with which information may have come. Over the course of the commission's work, has it received a large volume of information about a number of cases or has it been consistently spread out? Has it come in dribs and drabs or something more organised? I am not sure whether our guests can talk about that.
Mr. Geoff Knupfer:
There was a statement in the early days, in 1999, where I believe nine cases were reported. That has grown over the years and a further two cases were added to the list at various times. That initial information has been enhanced or improved as the years have gone by. It is really difficult to talk about this sort of detail, both because we are not allowed to and because I do not want to implicate anyone. Much of the work has gone on through intermediaries who, on a few occasions, have provided direct contact with primary sources, that is, people who were involved in these events. Often, however, information is passed anonymously and we do not know who these people are. That is the frustration.
I appreciate the constraints with which the commission operates. I am trying to ask questions within that, as our guests will understand. Last week, we had the opportunity to meet Mr. Oliver McVeigh, as the Chairman mentioned. He was clear about how desperately he and his family want to find his brother, a subject of significant work on the commission's part. He urged us, as public representatives and Members of the Oireachtas, to remind everybody to do everything they could to be of assistance with that. He asked us to call on everybody, including all the political parties, to be clear that information, if it exists, should be provided to the commission directly and without delay to enable the search to continue. Having met Mr. McVeigh and having had the opportunity to listen to him and the pain he, his mother and his family experienced and that he continues to experience in the absence of his brother, without the opportunity to give him a Christian burial or to begin to mourn the stages of death in the way a person might having gone through a burial, members of the committee want to take that opportunity. It is our good fortune our guests happen to be appearing before the committee this week, given we met Mr. McVeigh last week. It is important for me to take the opportunity to highlight that.
In light of Mr. Dalton's experience in the Department of Justice and his work throughout the period leading up to the Good Friday Agreement period, he has been engaged in reconciliation efforts for many years. Will he speak to how important the resolution and recovery of bodies is towards the overall reconciliation effort, having regard, perhaps, to the many families he will have met during his work in its various guises?
Mr. Tim Dalton:
It is very important. In the period leading up to the Good Friday Agreement, I was part of the back-up Civil Service team. Every element of the agreement is relevant and important. Without the little pieces in the agreement, some of which were more difficult than others, such as the release of a large number of prisoners and the constitutional changes, there would have been no agreement. The reconciliation aspect was a core aspect. I am not saying that without it, there would have been no agreement but every element of the agreement was significant and the fact reconciliation was included demonstrated at that time the importance everyone attached to it. Of course, the people of Ireland voted for that agreement, which contained the element of reconciliation.
Like others on the commission, I have met families who have lost people in the conflict. Some were disappeared, while others were not and simply lost their lives in the conflict. Outcomes that enable them to recall their loved ones with dignity are important, and outcomes that do not, such as those that prevent them from having a burial and closing the sad chapter, remain painful. It is difficult to think of this in terms of happiness but we have seen happiness in the faces of people who, after a number of years, have managed to find the remains of their loved ones. It brings enormous relief and happiness. It is not happiness in the sense of recovering alive someone who was lost but it produces a great deal of relief in families. In the three outstanding cases, there is still great sadness. That is why we regard it as an honour to have the opportunity to bring happiness to those people at long last or some measure of relief from suffering. We too have met Mr. Oliver McVeigh and we are very aware of the pain his family are suffering.
Mr. Tim Dalton:
Yes, it is. The pain continues, which is the difference. It is not a one-off event but remains for years.
It is rather like other situations with which we all will be familiar, such as the Stardust fire and so on. When there is no resolution and, as is sometimes the case, when no remains are found, it is painful and remains painful. That is why it is so important and why we plead for more information. We hope that with members' support and the support of a body such as this committee, we will get more information.
It is certainly our intention to draw as much attention to it as possible in this period. Mr. McVeigh was clear that he hopes that, if information could come to light over this winter period, it could lead to an opportunity for further good-weather digs in the spring and going into the summer. These opportunities are running out, so I think it is fair to say we are trying to draw attention to the issue.
Mr. Knupfer stated the commission is absolutely satisfied Columba McVeigh was murdered and buried at Bragan Bog and that 21 acres, or 8.5 ha, has been searched. How much of the bog remains? How large is it in area?
I am not seeking any information about any person or persons, but Mr. Knupfer stated he is absolutely satisfied that is where his body lies. He raised the question the commission may not have been given the correct location and stated it is something of a mystery. Does he mean the body may have been removed? I do not know whether he wants to comment on that. The implication is that while he is satisfied the body is there, there is a mystery as to what may have happened to it. Is that a fair comment?
Mr. Geoff Knupfer:
We are absolutely satisfied that Columba McVeigh was taken to Bragan Bog and murdered and buried there. Several sources have either directly or indirectly pointed to a specific area of the bog and it is that area we have searched, some of it more than once. We are satisfied his remains are not where we were told they were. That opens other avenues to consider, such as whether it is the wrong place or whether, for some inexplicable reason, although we are not suggesting this is correct, his body could have been moved in some way. People have said in the past that if a body is moved by 100 m, it might as well be 100 miles or 100 km, given that if it is not an area we are pinpointing to search, we will never find it. If, for example, somebody was using that land for another purpose and came across remains by accident, could he or she have moved them a few yards, meaning we will never find them? This is pure speculation on our part. We do not know and we cannot explain why Columba McVeigh's body is not where people told it was. We are satisfied it is not there and we are looking for alternatives.
Is the commission satisfied that, in the identification of human remains beneath soil, whatever scientific method is used to bounce signals off the bog can penetrate down sufficiently, as archaeologists do? I believe Mr. Knupfer is a specialist in forensic archaeology. Has that technology been exhausted, even for the wider area of the bog, which I appreciate from his commentary is very large? Is there anything more we could, in a technological way, to locate the remains?
Mr. Geoff Knupfer:
Unfortunately, we cannot survey the entire area of the bog, simply because of the scale of the operation. It comprises several square miles or square kilometres of bog. From an archaeological point of view, we can separate out survey and search, two quite different matters. A survey could involve, for example, walking and line-searching the bog for anomalies, the use of cadaver-detection dogs, geophysics or, most commonly, ground-penetrating radar. At one time or another, we have used all these approaches on Bragan Bog, but when it comes to the end of the line, there is only one way to be 100% certain, namely, by physically searching the ground. We have done that, as we mentioned, over 21.5 acres, an enormous area to search. The bog is open, and if any members wish to inspect it at any time, we will be more than happy to host them on it. It is a vast area and we could not contemplate undertaking such an exercise on the entire bog. It is just too big.
We will certainly take up Mr. Knupfer on that suggestion, if the committee agrees. We will visit at the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner, which he might specify.
The light detection and ranging, LiDAR, survey, which is carried out by aeroplane, can detect the presence of metals and differentiate the terrain under the surface to a not-insignificant depth. Could such a survey help?
Mr. Geoff Knupfer:
Yes, it possibly could. All these applications are complementary but, unfortunately, none of them will reveal exactly where the body is. Were that there was something. We looked at "Bloodlands" and thought what a wonderful piece of technology that drama series had come up with but, of course, that was make-believe. We use all these applications. In the past, LiDAR was very expensive because it had to be fitted to an aeroplane and the area surveyed by manned aircraft. Now, we can do it with unmanned vehicles and they are improving the approaches we can use. Unfortunately, LiDAR, just like infrared and the various other survey tools, will not give us the simple answer.
I am not sure whether this is a helpful suggestion, but I believe Ordnance Survey Ireland has a LiDAR aeroplane it uses to survey nationally. If it were possible for us, working with the commission, to write to that agency to have that done, would that make sense, assuming it has not been done? Notwithstanding what Mr. Knupfer said, if it might be helpful, it could be another opportunity, at this late stage, to try to recover the body of the deceased.
Mr. Geoff Knupfer:
We certainly would not reject any generous offer of that nature. By all means, we would consider it, although I am not an archaeologist by profession and I would clearly need to run it past our archaeologists. We have used unmanned technologies in recent years as they have become available to us, but if there is anything Ordnance Survey Ireland can provide that we cannot get elsewhere, we would be delighted to take it up on any offer of support.
Mr. John Finucane:
I welcome the practical step the Chairman proposed. It will be interesting to see whether the commission will find benefit from it.
This meeting represents, as has been the case on many other occasions, an opportunity for the committee to speak with one voice, and I expect that to continue through the presentations and the responses to the submissions from the commission. I extend a warm welcome to the commission members and thank them for their presentations and answers thus far. On the work they have undertaken and continue to carry out, they and all those who have assisted them throughout this State need to be commended.
The issue of those who were abducted, shot and secretly buried by the IRA is a terrible legacy of the decades of conflict that we have come through. That is very clear. Sadly, it is not the first time it has happened in our history. As we know, there are still issues dating back to the Civil War and the Tan War. This generation of republicans identifies the wrong that was done and is trying to undo that wrong. We have heard some talk today about how information has been passed that has led to the recovery of most, but not all, of the missing. As a result of those efforts, 13 of the 16 people killed and buried by republicans have been recovered. For me, it will not be good enough until everyone is recovered. There are three who have still not been recovered: Robert Nairac, Joe Lynskey and Columba McVeigh. The failure thus far to find them is not due to any lack of resolve or co-operation by republicans. It is important that we use the committee and the stage we have today to appeal unambiguously to anyone with information, no matter how insignificant he or she feels it is, to make it available, as my colleague, Deputy Brendan Smith, outlined in his opening remarks. The information could be vital to the work of the commission. I urge people to bring it forward on the basis of confidentiality, as has been outlined in some detail.
Mrs. Flanagan referred to the work of WAVE in her statement. I echo the fact that the timing of today’s meeting probably could not be any better given what was, in my view, a very successful trip to Belfast. WAVE is headquartered in my constituency, North Belfast. The very powerful testimonies we heard from the Ballymurphy and Springhill families, particularly those we met at WAVE last week, add to the resolve of every member of this committee to do all that can be done collectively and individually to urge people to come forward and end the pain of Oliver McVeigh, which we noted last week, and the pain other families are going through.
Again, I commend the work of the commission and look forward to hearing the rest of the presentations, submissions and answers.
That is fine. I just want to make sure that everybody from Sinn Féin is clear that they are not using their time. That is their prerogative, of course.
I am conscious that the Seanad is sitting and that Senators will be-----
I am jumping between what is happening in the Seanad and what is happening here.
I commend all the delegates on their phenomenal work. As many members have said today, we were at WAVE last week. It was extremely moving to meet everyone, particularly Mr. Oliver McVeigh. I cannot even imagine what it must be like for family members not to know the location of someone they have lost. My experience was extremely moving and very upsetting. I do not have any questions for the delegates. More than anything else, I would love it if people came forward with information. Coming forward is definitely the right thing. Any small bit of information could be vital in locating the three people who are still missing after all these years. I encourage anyone who has even the tiniest bit of information to come forward.
I commend WAVE on the phenomenal work it is doing. Ms Sandra Peake, its CEO, has amazing energy. I can only imagine the daily trauma associated with working with the families and dealing with it all. It is heartbreaking.
I thank the delegates for their presentations today and the work they are doing. Please God, the families will get information on their loved ones and find them.
I thank the members of the commission who are here with us and the staff behind them for their work. To echo the words of Senator Black, their work is important. As the delegates said in their submission, the work is humanitarian in orientation and important to the families of the victims and in achieving truth, justice and reconciliation. The commission is certainly one of the more successful initiatives in achieving some reconciliation and comfort for the families in the wake of the Troubles. We should all be learning from that.
The Chairman was talking about LiDAR. Are there things that we, as members of a committee, can do to support the commission? Are the things the two Governments can do to support the commission and that we could help to advocate? What is it that we can do to help the delegates to continue the good work?
I would like to take a moment to springboard from the good work the delegates are doing to consider the issue of truth and justice in general. The Independent Commission on Information Retrieval was part of the Stormont House Agreement in 2014. Its aim was not judicial prosecution but to establish the truth, achieve reconciliation and give families the information they wanted about their loved ones to help with the grieving process. While there has been detailed agreement regarding the Independent Commission on Information and Retrieval, we have never seen any legislation or progress on it here. An agreement would require legislation in Dublin and also Westminster. Any time I have asked about it, I have been told there is ongoing contact with Westminster. The Irish Government should not be waiting for the British Government but should be progressing this ourselves. Nothing is stopping us from carrying out our own pre-legislative scrutiny to make progress and from putting moral pressure on the British Government to act.
It is important to highlight the effect the British Government's approach in the form of a unilateral amnesty has had on communities and family members of victims. It has been very upsetting and has caused more problems. Again, we need to work with victims' families so we can have proper healing, truth, reconciliation and, ultimately, justice. The commission provides an excellent example of that in practice. It is a shame that we have not been able to follow through in other areas.
I will leave my little speech there and return to my original questions: is there something we can do to help the delegates with their work, and is there something the two Governments can do to help the commission with its work that we can advocate as a committee?
Mr. Tim Dalton:
I will take that question. Both Governments have always been very helpful to us in our work. We have never had the experience of being refused when we wanted to do something or get some equipment, or anything like that. We have had significant support on that front. Nevertheless, the suggestion made by the Chairman on affording another technological opportunity is very welcome. If we wanted to do something like that, there would certainly be no resistance from the Governments.
In fact, we would get support because they have been supportive all the way through.
Anther thing I will say, in case I do not think to say it later, is that Mr. Knupfer has emphasised the amount of work that has been undertaken in the case of Columba McVeigh and all the excavations and so on that have taken place. Having said that, we would not want anybody to think that that is the end of the road insofar as we are concerned in the case of Columba McVeigh or anybody else. If we get any new credible information about Bragan Bog or about Columba McVeigh or anybody else from this point onwards, anything we have not had before, we will act on it and treat it seriously.
We are getting back to the same point. What we need is information. That is our most urgent requirement, and that is one way in which the committee can be of most assistance to us - by making it clear that information is what is needed to end what is a tragedy for the families who still have no idea as to what happened to their loved ones. Well, they know what happened but they have not had access to the remains of their loved ones. That is the primary requirement. It is very heartening to us to hear members of the committee speak about all this. Obviously, the committee has a great understanding of the suffering that has been experienced by the people concerned. That is heartening.
I do now know if any of our Senators have arrived yet. If it is helpful, we can go into a second round. I just want to see if I can try to draw a few of the threads together. We should take up the invitation, at the appropriate time and under the appropriate circumstances, that Mr. Knupfer made that we visit the site of Bragan Bog. Perhaps there are other appropriate visits we could do. For example, Robert Nairac was murdered in my county, and I do not see why we should not visit a known location where there may have been evidence, if that makes sense.
Perhaps we could also agree that we will write to the Department. I think Ordnance Survey Ireland - I can confirm that later on - has the LiDAR aeroplane. Perhaps we could see whether it would be able to do a survey, provided that it makes sense to Mr. Knupfer and his technical people. If that makes sense, we should do that.
It may be appropriate that we table a motion in the Dáil, having listened to the witnesses' evidence today. The clerk will look at the process but I suggest that we propose that perhaps the leaders of the parties will make statements on the matter. It might be helpful to get the Taoiseach, the leaders of Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and Independents in to articulate the true purpose of the commission's search to recover these bodies and to give closure to the families. Would that be acceptable to people? I do not know if anybody else wishes to address the meeting now.
I wholeheartedly endorse the Chairman's proposal that we ask for a special Dáil debate and a motion to be tabled in the names of all the party and group leaders. That would elevate our work on the committee and the appeals of our guests and witnesses on the importance of this issue.
Mr. Knupfer referred to the television drama "Bloodlands". I did not see that programme. Has it damaged or affected in any way the provenance, the authenticity or the good work of the commission? Has it sent out a mixed message in any way that could damage its work and the appeal for information?
The commission gets on with its work and so on. Does it get advice or has it got assistance from, say, the Department of Justice or some of the Government agencies in having a worthwhile information programme nationally, maybe in Britain as well if that is needed, to outline the absolute urgency of this? As has been said, everybody is getting older. I am sure it gets more difficult as every day goes on. The memories fade and locations will be more difficult to search. The work therefore gets more difficult with each passing day. Apart from families and communities that have taken a particular interest and have been affected by the Troubles and that awful era of murder and mayhem, I do not know if there is a wide enough appreciation that we still have three families whose loved ones' remains have not been returned to them and that the commission's work is ongoing and of the utmost importance to all of us. Should consideration be given to a higher media profile regarding the importance of this work and the need to make further progress as soon as possible in view of the time lapse between the awful abduction and murder of these innocent people?
Is Bragan Bog and the area that has been searched preserved or fenced off at the moment, or can people go about their daily business? I refer to whoever owns the bog and visitors to that area. Is there protection of the site or is it preserved?
Mr. Geoff Knupfer:
I hope my list of those questions is correct. I ask the Deputy to pull me up if I miss anything.
No, we do not think "Bloodlands" has caused damage. What concerned us enormously at the time was whether people believed we might be passing information to the programme makers, which we certainly were not. I think there were one or two discussions just prior to broadcast about names attributed to members of the commission portrayed on screen, and the programme makers very kindly removed those names. There have been a number of documentaries on radio and television, in Ireland and beyond, covering the work of the commission, and in I think every single one we have made appeals for information and tried to explain that we are not remotely interested in what people did, other than if it would help us fine-tune the search process. We always make appeals for information on the basis that we do not want to speak to third parties. We would rather speak to the primary sources because that gives the best information we could possibly ask for. I think all three of us have said today and in the past that witnesses have nothing to fear from talking to us. We are not sure why people have not come forward. We cannot explain it. We know that there are other people out there who were involved in these events and have not come forward. To appeal to them to do so is really as far as we can go. As I said, why they will not speak to us directly we are at a loss to understand. I do not think anybody is putting pressure on them not to do so - not as far as we are aware, anyway. A member of our organisation leads on our media very proficiently. He has done it for a number of years and makes a great job of it, but you can only make so many appeals before the broadcast media switch off and the print media say, "We have done all that before." They are looking for something new, not a rehash of what we have done in the past. That is a big problem for us.
Lastly, the Deputy mentioned Bragan Bog and whether it is fenced off. No, it is not. It is open to anybody who wants to go there, but it is a very remote and wild area. It has its own microclimate. There can be blazing sunshine in Monaghan town while on Bragan Bog, just nine miles or ten miles or perhaps 12 km or 13 km away, it could be doing anything from snowing to cracking the flags. It is a very strange area in that respect. There is a lot of forestry up there and plantations that have been planted since the 1970s and some harvesting goes on from time to time.
We try as best we can to manage that with the forestry authorities and they have been enormously helpful to us over the years.
I hope I have answered all the Deputy's questions there. If there is anything else, I will gladly answer it if I can.
We know what people did. We know that innocent people were murdered and secretly buried in parts of Ireland and then the location of their remains were hidden from the families for decades and that in excess of 40 years later, we are still asking for where the bodies of people on this island are buried in order that we can give some tiny comfort to their siblings before they, too, pass on. We know what people did.
Something that struck me in our trip last week, and some colleagues as well, was we met more groups then. We met Mr. McVeigh. We met Rev. David Clements, whose father, who was in the RUC, was murdered. We met Mr. Alan McBride whose family were murdered in the Shankill bomb attack. We met families of the Ballymurphy massacre who suffered enormous intergenerational trauma and families of the Springhill massacre. All of those people really stuck with me over the weekend, and I am sure with colleagues as well. I was thinking about Ms Irene Connolly and the late Ms Joan Connolly in Ballymurphy over the weekend and, indeed, Ms Jacqueline Butler from Springhill. As we said to them at the time, you remember their faces. You remember what their voices sound like. You remember, when you have that personal connection.
Something that struck me also when we visited the WAVE Trauma Centre - which Mr. Knupfer has reference and which really is excellent, and we must commend Ms Sandra Peake, yet again, on her work - in particular, with Mr. McVeigh, was how alone he was, in comparison, in trying to articulate his voice on behalf of his brother and mother, to try to be heard and how different perhaps that was to some of the other experiences that we had had. Although all of the people who met stuck with me, certainly, over the weekend, that sense of being more alone really stood out. A Dáil motion is an excellent idea to have, yet again, that opportunity, many decades later, to put on the record what we are asking people to do and how we are asking people to contribute information. For the benefit of the record of the Oireachtas, I wanted to mention that. As members of the committee, we had the good fortune, opportunity and privilege to meet people and to listen to them. As we are doing that as public representatives, on behalf of our constituents, the very least that we can do is come back and relay that experience, and what that experience looked like and felt like, back onto the record of the Oireachtas so that people know what it was like. I thought that comparative isolation really stuck to me and I certainly wanted to note it today.
I absolutely concur. Indeed, it was sad and moving to hear Mr. McVeigh's emotional contribution and his charge as well. Mr. McVeigh wants the truth. He wants to bury his brother. People know where his brother's remains are and they are not telling him. Mr. McVeigh has not got closure.
I do not know if anybody else wants to comment. They should feel free.
Mr. Oliver McVeigh and other families of the disappeared go to Stormont each year. To my recollection, on one of the particular anniversary dates there is a gathering at Stormont. Maybe we should have a gathering here, at Leinster House.
Hopefully, that would get some media attention and help to create that awareness. As all of our witnesses have appealed for, I appeal to anybody with any shred of information, regardless of whether he or she thinks it may be totally insignificant. I, again, give out the message about the confidentiality, that no information would be admissible in any criminal proceedings. They are two messages that cannot be reiterated often enough.
In our capital city, when there is an event in Belfast each year, we should have some event that we should consider with WAVE when its representatives are here with us and maybe have it sooner rather than later.
I think we have a consensus. Everybody has addressed us.
The clerk to the committee will take note of our summary: that we visit the site or sites, if it is appropriate, in the manner in which the commission is happy to bring us there so that we are not asking the commission to compromise anything at all; that we will pass a motion, if we agree it now, worded by the clerk to the committee, to the Clerk of the Dáil asking that there would be statements by party leaders on this issue; and that we contact the Department with responsibility for Ordinance Survey Ireland, which is in charge of the LiDAR survey and if it is appropriate and makes scientific sense, such that the commission can sign off on such a measure, that it would happen. There is a total political imperative, if that makes sense, that we do it. They are all the issues. I think they are addressed in that.
I propose a statement would go out in the Chairman's name and that of the committee following our meeting today, and that we are following up on actions. It would be important to put that out as well.
Absolutely. If that is in order then, I thank Mr. Dalton, commissioner, Mrs. Flanagan, commissioner and Mr. Knupfer, who is the lead forensic scientist and investigator. Hopefully, their presence here today will help people come forward to give the closure to the families of the murdered, namely, Joe Lynskey, Columba McVeigh and Robert Nairac. They have our deepest concerns. We would love for them, above all else, to get the closure that they are entitled to, as human beings and as Christians.
With that, I propose to adjourn this meeting until 2 December.
Mrs. Rosalie Flanagan:
Chair, before you finish, could I just say that as you know, I have come very recently to this committee, just within the past year. The opportunities for activity have been limited but I have been more than impressed and overwhelmed by the comments and support members of this committee have given today both to the commission and, more importantly, to the families and especially those families who are still waiting to find their loved ones. All of the actions that you have proposed and have been agreed by the committee are very encouraging, to me and to all of us on the commission I am sure, and will be to the families. When I joined the commission it was from a humanitarian point of view. The emphasis today has been on the humanitarian aspect of it and all that flows from it, such as the need for information, the need for additional assistance with searches, support from politicians and support for WAVE, has been underlying the humanitarian message.
It struck me when we were talking about the need for Christian burial of loved ones that many people, probably throughout the world but certainly on this island, have had the experience in the past year and a half of not being able to have a normal wake and burial of loved ones who have died from illness or in the normal way. That has brought home to us a small measure of the experience that these families are having. It is something that could be brought home more to people. That might encourage people to come forward with information.
As has been said, it might encourage them to engage their consciences and help to bring information to Mr. Knupfer and the team and help us move things forward. This is especially the case now if we are able to re-engage in searches and meet people. I thank everybody for everything they have said and all the support they have given us. I appreciate very much the opportunity to come before the committee to speak to it and to listen to what the members have to say.
I thank Mrs. Flanagan That is very kind of her. It is fair to say that going to Belfast and meeting the families from Ballymurphy and Springhill and meeting victims in the WAVE Trauma Centre profoundly affected all of us. As parliamentarians, we will do our very best. I thank Paul Stephens, who did a fantastic job organising the visit to Belfast. We met so many people in such a short period. It was very helpful and very professionally organised. I thank him for that.
Mr. Tim Dalton:
I support what Mrs. Flanagan has said. We are very much aware that our job is not complete. We want to complete it and we are determined to complete it. We will act on anything that is anyway credible in order to bring it to completion. I must say it is extremely encouraging to hear committee members and get a clear understanding of just how deeply they all understand the importance of bringing a great sadness to an end, which is what we are all about. It is encouraging to us. Any help they can give in the way of encouraging people to provide information and the other suggestions made earlier will be extremely helpful. My feeling, and the feeling of all of us leaving the meeting, is to be greatly encouraged to get on with our task.
Mr. Geoff Knupfer:
I want to clarify a point on the situation with Oliver McVeigh and his siblings and all of the other families. They have received truly remarkable support from WAVE throughout and have done so for many years. We also support them. It is, perhaps, a little unfair to say they are a lone voice. They get enormous support and they deserve it.