Dáil debates

Thursday, 16 November 2006

3:00 pm

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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Question 2: To ask the Minister for Defence if he will arrange for the force of 56 soldiers who are currently deployed with EUFOR in Bosnia-Herzegovina to search for a person (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38351/06]

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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It is extremely difficult for any family when a member of the family goes missing far from home. I can only empathise with the terrible situation in which the family find themselves. My colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, has the lead role in respect of this issue. I understand from him that extensive efforts have been made by the consular service of the Department of Foreign Affairs to assist and support the family at this difficult time. The consular service has also maintained ongoing contact with the local police force, rescue services, politicians and senior officials in the region in which the town of Medjugorje is situated. Diplomatic officers and the ambassador have travelled from the Irish Embassy in Slovenia, which is also accredited to Bosnia-Herzegovina, to the region to review the search arrangements.

Since the person's disappearance, there have been six large scale searches, some of which involved the use of a helicopter. In addition to such large scale searches, there have been other, more localised, searches. The search continues and an officer from the Irish Embassy will again shortly visit Medjugorje to review the situation.

As Deputy Costello will appreciate, primary responsibility for conducting the search lies with the civil authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is not open to me simply to redeploy Irish Defence Forces personnel on a search mission within the borders of another sovereign state. The operational status of the Defence Forces personnel currently deployed in Operation Althea, the EU-led operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, is determined by their mission and the mandate given to the mission by the United Nations. They cannot all simply be directed to leave their posts to undertake a search operation. From both a legal and an operational perspective, this would be untenable.

That said, to date the search has been supported and assisted, as far as is practicable, by the Defence Forces personnel based in the country. During the initial search, the head of the EU monitoring mission released an Irish staff officer in Mostar to act as liaison. In addition, following a request from the EU police mission, EUFOR provided a helicopter that conducted a number of search flights in September and October. Defence Forces personnel have also provided assistance where possible through their local knowledge and contacts. I expect that the Defence Forces, within the requirements of their mission, will continue to assist in whatever way they can.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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I thank the Minister for his reply. I believe the Irish authorities in both the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Defence Forces have done a good job.

However, a number of questions must be resolved. First, a 59 year old lady, who had been to Medjugorje previously, went missing between 4 and 6 September. The vagueness as to when she went missing suggests that no immediate reporting of the event took place. Second, the police in Medjugorje did not interview any of the other pilgrims who had accompanied her to ascertain who might have last seen her, what were the circumstances and so on. There has been such severe criticism of the local authorities in Medjugorje regarding the failure to conduct an investigation that the family believe something of a cover-up took place and that the authorities there do not want any public dissemination of news that a person may have gone missing. It transpires that seven or eight other people have also vanished into thin air. This raises the question as to whether something more sinister may be afoot.

The direct family members are greatly dissatisfied regarding the conduct of the local authorities. Consequently, because of the lack of urgency and the absence of a comprehensive approach, on behalf of the family, I ask the Minister of Defence to make available some or all of the 56 soldiers serving in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In addition to the 56 soldiers serving in Bosnia, over 100 troops are stationed in Kosovo so there are many troops in the region. It should not be difficult to put together a substantial force to carry out a thorough search of the area. It is now ten weeks since the lady in question went missing and her family feels it would be wonderful if the Irish authorities based in the vicinity could do something directly. Will the Minister consider making Irish troops or a portion of them available for an intensive search?

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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I note Deputy Costello's comments about the initial investigation and I do not wish to comment one way or another on it. According to information received by me, there have been six large scale searches and a number of more localised searches. The information received by us indicates that there has been no deficiency in the follow-up searches and that the local authorities are doing everything they can.

While I share Deputy Costello's sentiments, the question remains as to whether we can unilaterally deploy Irish troops in this search. I recall a case in the past few months in my own constituency where a young man went missing. He was missing for some time, people feared the worst and the gardaí failed to find him, despite their best efforts. His mother came to me in a state of considerable anguish and asked me to bring in the Army. When I spoke to the local officer commanding in Sarsfield Barracks, he told me that while representations had been made to him because some of the young man's relatives were in the Army, he could do nothing because he had received no request for help from the local police. Even in this country, the Army cannot intervene in such circumstances without being requested to do so by the civil authorities.

We are talking about a foreign country — Bosnia-Herzegovina. At least in the initial stages, the task of searching for this woman is exclusively a matter for the local civil authorities. If they were to make any request to me to deploy some of the Irish troops on their soil or in nearby Kosovo, I would look at it sympathetically. However, in the absence of such a request, I am not entitled unilaterally to deploy Irish troops.

Photo of Rory O'HanlonRory O'Hanlon (Cavan-Monaghan, Ceann Comhairle)
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We must now proceed to Question No. 3. We have spent seven minutes on Question No. 2 and it is in everyone's interest that we move on.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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I accept that no request has been made but could the Minister not offer his services to the local authorities if they have a shortage of facilities?

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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We are continually in touch with the local authorities and if they want my help, they can ask for it.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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Will the Minister meet with the woman's family?

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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The Minister for Foreign Affairs has offered to meet the family if it so wishes.