Thursday, 8 November 2018
It is great to have the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, back in the House. Some Members may be aware that in recent weeks the remains of two people who had been missing for a significant period were identified. The process of reuniting them with their loved ones and giving them a dignified burial will happen, if it has not happened. It is a wonderful end to a tragedy that these families will be able to give their loved ones, who were missing for decades, a Christian and respectful burial. It closes a chapter that had dominated their lives for decades. This has happened as a result of the development of DNA profiling and technologies in that area. Such development is ongoing. As a result of recent DNA developments, it has been possible to identify the two remains and return them to their families.
As part of that process, it has come to my attention through the media and from watching people like Barry Cummins, who have done phenomenal work in raising these issues and keeping them in the media spotlight, that an audit has not been done of unidentified remains in this country. There are unmarked graves and unidentified remains in morgues and in other areas of this country. I call for an audit of all the unidentified remains and, also, the provision of a budget to further enable DNA profiling to see if more of these missing persons cases can be resolved.
Like other Members, I attended the National Missing Persons Day commemorative ceremony in Farmleigh House a few years ago. In all I have done in public life it was probably one of the most moving ceremonies I have ever been at. The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, was chair of the Oireachtas committee on justice at the time. and he and I travelled to it. It was an incredibly moving occasion. Deputy Frances Fitzgerald was the Minister for Justice and Equality at the time and Nóirín O'Sullivan was the Garda Commissioner, and they both attended. Families shared their stories of what they were going through on a daily basis in dealing with the fact that there was no closure for them. The format of what happens at one of these missing persons days is that if it is the 10th, 20th, 30th or, in some cases, the 40th anniversary of a missing person, the stories and experiences of those families are shared. It is an opportunity for all those families to come together and share their experiences and stories. People even travel from England and the United States for that day.
I request the Minister of State, in the first instance, to ensure an audit is carried out of all the unidentified remains that exist in this State and, second, to increase the funding to carry out the critical DNA profiling given that the technologies and the methodologies have advanced so much. If it brings closure to one family, it would be wonderful. I contend that with the advancement in the profiling that has taken place it will bring closure to many families.
I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I am responding on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality who, unfortunately, cannot be present today.
It is distressing when the remains of deceased persons are sometimes discovered on land often because of some construction activity or washed up on our riverbanks or coasts. I assure the Senator that the concerned State authorities make every effort to identify such persons by whatever means possible.
Unidentified remains are the subject of both a Garda investigation, assisted by the relevant State technical authorities and by the relevant coroner for the district where the remains are discovered. These investigations continue for as long as the possibility of a positive identification, by whatever means, remains possible.
The Minister is informed that there are few cases at this point where remains cannot be identified within a foreseeable timeframe.
The Senator suggested the need to conduct a national audit of unidentified human remains to establish the numbers involved. The Minister is unclear as to the purpose of such an audit. The primary investigating authorities will hold either the remains, or more often, relevant samples for scientific testing. Forensic Science Ireland, FSI, is the State’s forensic analysis service and works in close partnership with An Garda Síochána in the investigation of crime and presentation of evidence at criminal trials.
The DNA database commenced operation in November 2015 and its implementation is one of the most important crime fighting tools introduced within the State in recent times. Using the database, information is supplied to the Garda about links between people and unsolved crimes. These crimes have ranged from burglary and criminal damage to crimes against the person, sexual assault and suspicious deaths.
The power of the database as an investigative tool is that it is providing Garda with investigative leads in previously unsolved serious crimes. The database can replace more traditional and time-consuming police investigative methods and provide more focus to a criminal investigation. The DNA database currently contains more than 21,000 profiles and this figure growing all the time.
The Minister also notes the recent successes by FSI in identifying unknown remains, to which the Senator referred. These successful outcomes can finally bring some closure to the families and relations of these missing persons. These successes were possible due to advances in DNA technology. The DNA database can retain samples from relatives of missing persons and use these samples to aid in the identification of unknown remains.
The reason I tabled this matter is that when Barry Cummins revealed the good news that two families had received on "Prime Time" last Thursday night, he raised the issue of the necessity to carry out a national audit of unidentified remains. I thought that it made sense. I will do more research on it. I welcome the Government's commitment in terms of its attempts to bring closure for families in these awful, tragic situations. I thank the Minister of State for his reply and we will develop the story as we go along.
I thank the Senator for his further comments and for sharing his concerns, which we all share, that families at some point in the future may find it difficult to determine where exactly their missing loved ones have gone. I have endeavoured to set out as best I can the response of the Minister. I assure the Senator that his Department will continue to support FSI in this important work and that FSI has received increased funding in the area of DNA profiling for 2019, which is something to which he referred. In addition, FSI will continue to work closely with An Garda Síochána and the National Missing Persons Bureau in their ongoing investigations of missing persons for the purpose of identifying unknown human remains.