Agency required to establish number of unidentified bodies in State, says TD

Dáil hears families of missing people must contact individual coroners and cemeteries

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee acknowledged the difficulty facing families seeking missing relatives, according to Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee acknowledged the difficulty facing families seeking missing relatives, according to Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

 

A Government department or agency must be appointed to do a national audit of coroners and cemeteries to establish the numbers of unidentified bodies in the State, the Dáil has been told.

Labour TD Duncan Smith said such an agency could mean the families of missing persons would no longer have to contact individual coroners’ offices or graveyards in their attempts get information about their loved ones.

He said one relative told him that having to do this “is like going to multiple lost and found offices, which I thought was such a tragic thing to say”.

Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman told Mr Smith 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”.

Speaking for Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, Mr O’Gorman said Department of Justice officials “are examining ways to update and take forward that work while fully respecting the independent role of the coroners”.

He acknowledged the “particular real difficulty that relatives face with having to engage with individual coroners rather than just one agency”.

Raising the issue in the Dáil, Mr Smith pointed out that there are currently 823 live missing persons cases “and an unknown number of unidentified bodies in our State”.

He said “we just don’t know how many unidentified bodies are interred in cemeteries or in morgues in this country because there’s no compellability on coroners or cemeteries to report it”.

He said: “If coroners cannot find out the ‘how’ they don’t have to find out the ‘who’.”

Mr Smith said the families of missing persons have to go to individual coroners’ offices and graveyards trying to get information.

There are currently 17 unidentified remains for which there is DNA analysis. The Dublin Fingal TD pointed to the case of Dennis Walsh, the Limerick man who went missing in March 1996.

“His remains were found in Inishmore 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.”

Mr Smith said “there is scope for more bodies to be identified and matched with people who are missing”.

It was “unacceptable” continue with the status quo “and rely on the combination of disconnected State bodies, imperfect infrastructure, the work of journalists and families to solve these mysteries and bring some truth”.

Mr O’Gorman said the Garda missing persons unit “is the linchpin in the investigation process” for missing persons and co-ordinating DNA retrieval from their family members. Ireland’s DNA database “contains valuable close family samples alongside profiles of persons whose identify is not yet known”.

He stressed that Ms McEntee and her department acknowledged the “real difficulty that relatives face with having to engage with individual coroners rather than just one agency” and were initiating work in this area.