Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 May 2023

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Missing Persons

9:12 am

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for coming to the House to deal with this issue. In view of a recent meeting where coroners presented details of more than 40 remains on which they have information but who have not been identified, will the Minister give consideration to the establishment of an office of State forensic pathologist to complement and support the work of the State pathologist, coroners, gardaí and other relevant authorities? Will the Minister make a statement on the matter?

The coroners gave information to the Department in respect of more than 40 remains for which they have information. The information has been available for quite some time. I have raised this issue on quite a number of occasions over the past five or six years. In fact, I set out a detailed document on this more than five years ago which I submitted to the Department. I have been involved in this area for a long number of years. The Law Reform Commission report on missing persons was published in 2013. Following that, I published a Private Member's Bill in 2013 and republished it in 2016. Eventually, the Civil Law (Presumption of Death) Act 2019 was finally passed by the Dáil and Seanad. Where a person went missing but the body was never recovered, the Act allowed parties to apply to the court for a presumption of death order.

There have been a number of cases where bodies were recovered. A person went missing in Dublin in December 2016. A body washed up in July 2017 off the coast of Louth. It took until 2017 to match the information. A person went missing in Limerick and remains were discovered in Clare a number of months later, but again it was quite a number of years before the remains that were found were matched to the identity of the person who went missing.

This office is essential and it would have a number of key roles. The first would be the establishment and maintenance of a database for unidentified human remains. It would provide an annual review of all unidentified human remains and the stage of investigation of each case. It would keep the records of all unidentified remains cases in Ireland and liaise with and act as a contact point for coroners, State pathologists and gardaí to provide advice and ways of identifying human remains. It would also include the establishment and supervision of training programmes for forensic practitioners and supervise interns and students as well as performing standard anthropological analysis. There would also be the issue of cross-Border engagement.

In view of the work coroners have done and the fact we have not co-ordinated all of this over a long number of years, it is now time to set up one central point to deal with this issue. When someone goes missing, it is very difficult for a family to find out after ten, 12 or 15 years that the State or a State authority had information about remains being recovered and that there is a connection. It is time to look at this issue and give serious consideration to the proposal.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Burke for raising this important matter and giving me the opportunity to provide clarity and some views on the issue. I also want to thank him for and acknowledge his ongoing work and interest in the area. His Private Member's Bill had a positive impact in terms some legislative change in Ireland.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the families of missing persons, families who have engaged with the Department of Justice in recent years on an important and sensitive issue. Not knowing where a family member is or what has happened to them is a tragic and devastating situation to be in. While working tirelessly to find their loved ones, these families have put forward numerous recommendations to Government to assist in locating missing persons. One of the measures proposed by the families was the establishment of a central data set containing all known information on unidentified remains. I am very pleased that earlier this month my Department published the coroners' database on unidentified remains.

Regarding the contents of the database, there are 44 records of unidentified remains. Of those, 29 are full human remains while 15 are partial remains. The remains were found across 12 different counties in Ireland. A DNA profile is available for 28 of the records and it is intended, where possible, to carry out further DNA profiling. Following the announcement last year to collate this data set, the Department of Justice worked closely with coroners, Forensic Science Ireland and An Garda Síochána's missing persons unit to compile and publish this information. The introduction of the new national DNA database in 2015 by Forensic Science Ireland was a key turning point in the identification of human remains in Ireland. It has enabled missing people to be matched by DNA to unidentified bodies, helping to bring some element of closure to families searching for their loved ones.

My Department established a forum in July 2021, alongside the Coroners Society of Ireland, An Garda Síochána's missing persons unit and Forensic Science Ireland, to facilitate information exchange on unidentified remains. While the Department has no immediate plans to establish a centralised office of State forensic pathologist, I assure Deputy Burke that further meetings of the stakeholder forum will be held this year and this is an opportunity to perhaps further explore his idea and discuss improvements that could be made to the gathering and sharing of unidentified remains and missing persons data.

It is also intended that the data set will be updated on an ongoing basis and we will be looking constantly to better understand how this information can be used to reunite the remains of missing persons with their families.

We are all united in wanting to achieve the same outcome, that being, ensuring families get closure and that there is a co-ordinated use of technology, information and databases to bring about that degree of closure. Crucially, we must continue listening closely to the families of missing people and work with them to try to implement their recommendations.

Respectfully, the suggestions and input the Deputy is making are the types of information we can now feed into future stakeholder forum meetings, which will take place with families later this year.

9:22 am

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister. My understanding is that the Coroners Society of Ireland, the Office of the State Pathologist, the Dublin District Coroner, the missing persons bureau of An Garda Síochána and Forensic Science Ireland support the proposal I am making. I presented it to the Department and the Minister of the day five years ago, but it is only in the past three weeks that we have had a database with 44 cases. My understanding is that there are many more cases, which have not been presented to the Department, of unidentified buried remains.

This is a matter we should be addressing. One approach would be central co-ordination. In fairness, each and every coroner's office is under immense pressure because more cases are being referred to them. For example, the Dublin District Coroner faces major challenges in trying to deal with its workload and have decisions made. I understand that, where some coroners and pathologists are concerned, the analysis that they require is being done outside the State. We could have a central hub to co-ordinate not only that, but also training so that we do not have to send some of the work to other jurisdictions. We should give this suggestion serious consideration. There would be significant savings for the State in the long term and remains would be identified earlier.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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It is vital we gather information on unidentified remains that lie within the State and that we put in place a system whereby they can be identified. The families of missing persons require and deserve closure. The forum, comprising representatives of the Coroners Society of Ireland, the Garda and Forensic Science Ireland, which are agencies the Deputy referenced, will continue its valuable work in this regard.

My Department has established a standing committee that is tasked with considering the core issues involved in the provision of a sustainable pathology service to coroners in the long term. The committee includes representatives from the Department, the Coroners Society of Ireland, the Office of the State Pathologist, the HSE, the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland and local authorities. More broadly, my Department is committed to introducing proposals on the comprehensive reform of the Coroner Service to deliver a service improvement plan that will address identified issues – innovative change, enhancing customer service and improving the interaction with pathology services. It is intended to conduct a public consultation exercise prior to the development of proposals on comprehensive reform.

I acknowledge the Deputy's interest in, and active work on, this matter. I accept his point about the length of time it took to get from there to here, but with the new centralised database, we have taken a significant step forward. It was a core request of families of missing persons. We are not finished yet, though, and we are determined to continue doing everything we can to have the systems and supports in place to provide answers for families, identify remains and bring some element of closure. The stakeholder forum remains in place and involves all of the agencies and organisations the Deputy mentioned. It will meet a number of times more this year. On foot of this debate, I will ask that the Deputy's suggestion and input be fed into that process. I am happy to keep in contact with him on it.