State forensic investigators are to acquire advanced new DNA technology to allow them identify relatives of the children buried at the Tuam mother and baby home.
The technology will potentially allow relatives as distant as half nieces and nephews to be matched to remains.
The remains of hundreds of children, ranging in age from 35 foetal weeks to between two and three years, were buried in a series of underground chambers at the home between 1925 and 1961.
In 2016, the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes determined more than 800 young children died in the Galway institution during its operation.
Following the commission’s report, the Government committed to exhuming and attempting to identify every set of remains before handing them over to family members for burial.
Forensic Science Ireland (FSI), the State’s primary forensic laboratory whose main role is the investigation of crime, has been tasked with leading the scientific process of identifying the remains.
As part of this work FSI is to acquire “forensic genetic genealogy” DNA sequencing kits. These will allow scientists to extract DNA from historic skeletal remains, potentially even if they are a century old.
It will then be cross-referenced against a DNA database being established by the Government. This voluntary database will collect samples from people who believe a relative may have been buried at the site.
The technology will allow for DNA extraction from a “range of challenging forensic sample types such as degraded blood, bones and teeth”, a request for tender document from FSI states.
The new DNA sequencing method will allow FSI scientists, at a minimum, to match remains to “third degree relatives”, a category which includes great-grandchildren, first cousins and half-nieces and nephews.
However, the legislation governing the Tuam investigation, the Institutional Burials Act 2022, provides for the collection of DNA only from closer relatives such as grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces.
The cost of the new technology is expected to be €2.5 million-€5 million over a five-year period. The Government has previously estimated the total cost of the Tuam process to be up to €13 million. The Bon Secours order of nuns, which run the home, has offered to cover €2.5 million of the costs.
“The newer technologies will significantly increase the chances that viable DNA can be recovered from the human remains and be used for comparison purposes. They will also allow for broader familial searching and comparisons,” an FSI spokesman said.
Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman said last year the excavation at the site would be “one of the most complex forensic excavation and recovery efforts” undertaken “anywhere in the world”.
The Minister said the excavation would involve a DNA identification process “on a scale never done before” in Ireland.
The technology being acquired by FSI will technically allow it to cross-reference DNA samples with commercial DNA databases, such as genealogy services which have become popular in recent years.
This practice has become common among law enforcement in the US to aid in the identification for criminal suspects. It has also been criticised by privacy campaigners.
However, it is understood there are no plans for the FSI to use the technology in this way.