Thursday, 4 March 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, for stepping in for this Topical Issue matter. The Minister for Justice's office contacted me. I understand she is at a Brexit meeting. I know, however, given his interests and his past, Deputy O'Gorman may have a personal interest in this as well. He might bring this matter up to the Minister, Deputy McEntee.
I am going to discuss a matter of the upmost sensitivity. It is an issue of which I have no personal experience; the vast majority of people do not. However, for those living with someone in their lives who is missing, it is a matter of all-consuming trauma that is compounded by the lack of co-ordination and leadership between various Departments and State agencies. It can, however, be resolved with some political will, which is what I am hoping to start and engender today.
Today is National Book Day, and I am currently reading Missing by RTÉ journalist, Mr. Barry Cummins, who has been a tireless worker and advocate for families of missing people and the rights of those whose remains are unidentified. On 31 December 2020, he penned an article, which indicated there are 18 unidentified remains for which there is DNA analysis. That number is now down to 17 because in early February, there was a breakthrough in a case regarding Denis Walsh, the young Limerick man who went missing in March 1996. His remains were found in Inis Mór about a month later but were not identified until earlier this year due to DNA. His poor family searched for 25 years, even though an organ of the State had found the remains. However, no one was able to put two and two together and provide the truth for his family. That is a tragedy in itself . Ultimately, they have found the remains and he has been identified.
This could happen for many cases out there, however. We do not know how many unidentified bodies are interred in cemeteries or remain in morgues because there is no compellability upon coroners or cemeteries to report that. If coroners cannot find out the "how", they do not have to find out the "who". With 823 current live missing persons cases and an unknown number of unidentified bodies in our State, there is scope for more bodies to be identified and matched with people who are missing.
This must be done as it is the right thing to do. One relative of a missing person said to me this week that having to go to many different coroners offices and cemeteries throughout the country trying to seek information is similar to going to multiple lost and found offices, which I thought was such a tragic thing to say. It is so unbearably sad to not be able to get any information and for there to be no compellability on anyone to provide information.
A Department or organisation should be given responsibility and resources, and it will take time and resources, to do an audit of all the unidentified bodies out there. We could then match them and carry out DNA analysis to see if we can provide truth for many families who live with this unbearable trauma, through silence from the State, every day.
I thank the Deputy for speaking with such passion on this issue. The stark figure he raised of more than 800 active missing persons cases in the country reminds us why this issue is so critical. I spoke to the Minister, Deputy McEntee, about this earlier this afternoon. She said she would like to be here but cannot because of the Brexit meeting. I will, however, engage with her further and I know she is giving this issue her attention.
As the Deputy will appreciate, the investigation and prevention of crimes are operational matters for the Garda Commissioner and An Garda Síochána. The Minister for Justice does not have a direct role in that operational element. I assure the Deputy, however, that she is in ongoing contact with the Commissioner and his management team with regard to the policy and policing response to crime incidents generally.
The Garda missing persons unit, local Garda stations and the network of family liaison officers around the country all perform crucial roles in investigating missing persons incidents and supporting families and friends of missing persons. The missing persons unit is the linchpin in the investigation process, carrying out investigations, assisting local gardaí on complex cases, liaising with governmental and non-governmental agencies involved in this area of work, co-ordinating DNA retrieval from family members of persons on the missing persons database and assisting in the identification of unidentified human remains.
Forensic science and the retrieval of DNA from close family members has made substantial contributions to missing persons cases over the past number of years, and indeed, Ireland's DNA database contains valuable close family samples alongside profiles of persons whose identify is not yet known. The database can match missing people, sometimes via their close relatives, to unidentified bodies, helping to bring some element of closure for families searching for their loved ones. The database can also serve to eliminate a missing person if an unidentified body is found matching their description, again assisting the gardaí with their investigations. The population of this database, in conjunction with the work of Forensic Science Ireland and An Garda Síochána, has enabled increasing numbers of missing persons to be identified in recent years. These successes provide hope for those families who are still seeking answers about the disappearance of their loved ones.
I can confirm that some preliminary work was carried out by An Garda Síochána in 2019 to record unidentified remains that may be located with individual coroners across the country. Department of Justice officials are examining ways to update and take forward that work while fully respecting the independent role of the coroners as set out in the Coroners Act 1962. That identifies that particular real difficulty that relatives face with having to engage with individual coroners rather than just one agency. The Minister and the Department have identified this and are initiating work in that area.
Ambiguous loss of a loved one is a devastating experience for affected families and friends. As a Minister and member of the Government, I offer my deepest sympathies to family and friends who have been affected profoundly and sadly by these losses.
I thank the Minister for his reply.
I take some encouragement from the fact that some preliminary work has been done and this will be built on. Will the Minister give a commitment that the Department will examine some recommendations of what the best way to proceed would be and report them back to the suitable parties, be it the justice spokespeople or the House itself?
The missing persons bureau and Forensic Science Ireland do fantastic work. The science is there to bring resolution and truth to many people and families. There are many different reasons people go missing. Some are the victims of crime while others are victims of tragic circumstances. The majority of those in question meet lonely ends in this world. Many would have lived the last few months or years of their lives on the margins of their communities or, perhaps, their families. If the State does not do its best in identifying them, give them a resting place and reunite their remains with their families, then forever in death they will remain marginalised, outside and excluded. That is not something that we can stand over.
There are two choices for the Government and subsequent Governments. The first is to accept the status quoand rely on the combination of disconnected State bodies, imperfect infrastructure, the work of journalists and families to solve these mysteries and bring some truth. That is unacceptable. The second is to come up with the recommendation that will resolve this, provide a pathway for those families, as well as offering some kind of system and organisation in which they can trust and believe. It will not resolve or find the truth for all the cases. However, it will for some and, maybe, for most. That is something for which we should strive. I look forward to raising this further at the appropriate times in the House. I thank the Minister again for his response.
I will bring that request to the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee. While I do not want to speak for her by any means, I am sure the Government will look at examining recommendations. As I acknowledged in my own statement, the loss of a loved one in unknown circumstances is tragedy. The pain associated with such loss is carried and felt by families and subsequent generations. When we hear of a body being identified, there is the mixed emotion of the absolute tragedy for the family. There is also, I suppose, a slight sense of relief and some final answers being provided to that family. This is what the Deputy is seeking to achieve.
The Minister wants to focus on the importance of national Missing Persons Day as part of a commemoration that the Department of Justice runs every year. It complements the existing international Missing Children's Day. It has several objectives including that it commemorates those who have gone missing and it also recognises the lasting trauma for their families and their friends. It also usefully draws attention to open or unsolved missing persons cases and creates an opportunity to provide information on available support services.
Forensic Science Ireland and An Garda Síochána have worked in partnership over the past number of years to develop a DNA testing facility for families of missing persons at the national Missing Persons Day ceremony. This partnership has served to enhance the ceremony from that of a commemorative event to one that is actually contributing to raising awareness of the significant contribution that DNA testing can bring to the conclusion of a considerable number of missing persons cases over recent years.
This year Missing Persons Day 2021 will continue in the same vital vein and will seek to raise public awareness of the crucial work undertaken by a range of justice and State agencies, as well as that carried out by community and voluntary organisations.