Wednesday, 22 February 2012
Topical Issue Debate
Northern Ireland Issues
I welcome the Minister for Justice and Equality. I wish to commend the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains on the work it has been doing. It has had a number of specific successes but a total of seven bodies have not been found. These are the bodies of people who were callously murdered by different paramilitary organisations.
I wish to outline the reason why I raise this matter. Time is running out for many of the families which have an expectation of locating the remains of their loved ones. It is my intention to create an awareness of this issue and to send out a strong message to those who are in possession of information or who have access to such information. These individuals they should search their consciences in the context of deciding whether they should make this information available.
I want to place this matter in context. I live on the coast of Donegal and a large number of people in my constituency are involved in the fishing industry. During my lifetime, many individuals involved in that industry have tragically been lost at sea. The consolation to people who live in fishing communities comes when the body of someone who has been lost is recovered. That is a powerful consolation. I recall attending a wake on one occasion at which a grandmother repeatedly stated "At least we found the body, there is consolation in that". The position is no different for those who ten, 20, 30 or 40 years ago lost loved ones as a result of the Troubles. They know that their sons' or daughters' bodies are buried in the ground somewhere but they are not aware of the specific location. However, they do not know whether they will ever find their loved ones during their own lifetimes. In that context, I call on those with information to consult their consciences in respect of this matter and to take action in order to ensure that the people who have been trying to locate the bodies to which I refer will have some peace.
I thank Deputy McHugh for raising this important matter. The conflict in Northern Ireland, which dominated politics in both jurisdictions on this island for decades, was sadly characterised by a savagery that never lost its potential to shock us. Thousands lost their lives to violence and many thousands more - the families and friends of those victims of violence - were left to grieve, their lives having been changed forever.
During the conflict in Northern Ireland a number of people were abducted and murdered by paramilitary groups and then buried in secret locations. They have become known as "the Disappeared". The Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains was established by the Irish and British Governments in 1999 as one element of a matrix of actions taken in the context of the peace process to acknowledge and address the suffering of the victims of violence as a necessary element of reconciliation. The sole purpose of the commission is to facilitate the location of the remains of the Disappeared. It has no role in criminal investigations or prosecutions.
I had the opportunity in November last to meet with some of the families of the Disappeared. They have suffered a very particular cruelty in not only being obliged to bear the tragedy of murder but also in having been denied, for so long, information regarding the burial places of their loved ones. One can only imagine the anguish that these families have been forced to endure over past decades and that some of them still endure to this day. I was struck by their dignity and bravery. They have maintained their hope and resolve for decades and in the face of disappointments. They continue to support one another in their determination to ensure that those still missing are recovered. The Government fully supports them in this. The Northern Ireland Office Minister, Mr. Hugo Swire MP, and the two commissioners, Mr. Frank Murray and Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, were also present at the meeting with the families. We were happy to reassure the families that the commission will continue to do whatever it can to recover their loved ones.
The commission, with the support of the two Governments, has worked tirelessly over the years. I pay tribute to Frank Murray and Ken Bloomfield, and to their investigation team, for their sterling work in what is a very difficult and delicate task. Thankfully, the commission has been able to bring closure for some of the families. Regrettably, there are still seven people on the commission's list who, despite its efforts, have not been located. The commission's current programme of work, based on the information about the possible location of one of the victims, will result in some further excavation works later this spring. The commissioners have emphasised to me that their work is driven by information. I know they made this clear at the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement last week. Without that key resource of information, there is little for the commission to go on. I join Deputy McHugh in calling on anybody, whether they are within or without the republican movement, who has any information which could help locate those still missing to give that it to the commission without delay. I make that call to people who live on this island or who reside elsewhere to provide any information of which they are aware and which could be of help. All information provided to the commission will be treated as strictly confidential and everyone can rest assured that it can only be used to locate and identify the remains. It cannot be given to other agencies, used for prosecutions etc.
The commission has in place a confidential freephone number and post office box address through which information can be passed to it. Information about the commission and how to contact it is available on the its website, www.iclvr.ie. The commission's sole purpose is a humanitarian one. All the families want is to give their loved ones a decent burial, to have a place to grieve and, in some measure at least, to obtain closure. The Government remains committed to that aim and I call on all others to help bring it about.
The Minister said everything that needs to be said. I echo his call that information be provided. We must send out a strong signal on the importance of this matter to the families. Unfortunately we may not have success for all seven families, but even a percentage increase would be significant. I echo the Minister's comments and concur with him on the efforts of everybody in the commission. It is a question of conscience. People will be grappling with their consciences in bed at night. That is the time to think about it and I ask them to do so. Everything will be treated in the strictest confidence, as the Minister outlined.
I will briefly respond. People have suffered terrible unexpected tragedy in their lives during the course of what occurred on this island during the terrible years of violence and conflict. Families are entitled to know the whereabouts of the remains of their loved ones, they are entitled to have the opportunity for a burial service, and they are entitled to some closure, in so far as it is ever possible to bring it about.
There are people on this island who must know the whereabouts of some of the remains that have yet to be recovered and who, for reasons known only to themselves, are not yet willing to share this information. I call on them to do so, and not only on behalf of the Government because, in saying this, I think I represent all Members of the House, be they members of parties or independent.
One final effort would be a huge help to these families. For the commission to engage in this effort, it requires information. Its work is essentially dependent on information being made available to it. If people on the island were involved in terrible acts in the past and know the whereabouts of the remains of those who lost their lives, they should make some small acknowledgement of their role in this by quietly and confidentially providing essential information to facilitate the commission continue its work and afford new hope to the families who today anxiously await the possibility of remains being located and returned, and the possibility of a proper decent burial service for their loved ones.