Priority Questions. - Missing Persons.

John O'Donoghue

Question:

5 Mr. O'Donoghue asked the Minister for Justice the additional steps, if any, she intends to take with a view to ascertaining the whereabouts of missing persons; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [9224/97]

I refer the Deputy to my answer on 27 February to his priority question concerning the number of women reported missing. As I stated at that time, I have been assured by the Garda authorities that every possible effort is made to locate missing persons. The Garda has a particular responsibility in tracing those persons who are under 18 years of age or physically or mentally handicapped or whose disappearance occurred in circumstances which give rise to fears for their physical or moral safety. It has to be borne in mind that some adults may decide, in effect, to go "missing". While this undoubtedly gives rise to great concern on the part of their families and friends, it is a personal choice for the person concerned.

The Garda puts substantial resources into tracing those missing persons for whom it has a particular responsibility. In 1995, the last year for which figures are available, the number of such persons reported missing to the Garda was 1,444. Of these, 1,432 persons were subsequently traced. As I previously explained to the Deputy, the detailed deployment of Garda personnel and resources is a matter for the Garda authorities. I am informed by the Garda authorities that all reported cases of missing persons are followed up and that in the vast bulk of cases the persons concerned have been located, as evidenced by the figures I gave to the Deputy on 27 February last.

All files on missing persons are kept open and are regularly followed up to ascertain if any new evidence on their whereabouts is available. Where the Garda has reason to think that a person's disappearance is suspicious or linked to a possible crime, I have been assured by the Garda that investigations remain ongoing, sometimes leading to prosecutions many years after the person has gone missing. This can happen where new evidence becomes available or where in the investigation of another matter a link is made to a missing person.

All the resources and units of the Garda Síochána are brought to bear in the investigation of a missing person and the Commissioner has assured me that this is the appropriate way to investigate such missing person cases.

Is the Minister aware that the families of missing persons are extremely anxious that a missing persons unit be set up within the Garda Síochána structure? Will she encourage the Garda Commissioner to look positively in this direction during their discussions? Does she agree that the existence of such a unit would enable a concentration on cases involving missing persons and ensure that a link between cases is spotted immediately?

I recently met the family of a missing person who believe a case can be made for setting up the special missing persons unit. The detailed deployment of the Garda Síochána is a matter for the Garda Commissioner and this matter comes within his remit.

The new Garda Commissioner carried out a review of the structure of all the specialist units attached to the Garda headquarters and the Central Detective Unit at Harcourt Square. This review came about as a result of emerging trends in regard to different forms of criminal activity. As a result of the review the expertise and resources available to individual units have been combined to form the Garda National Bureau of Criminal Investigation under the control of the chief superintendent. The resources of this unit will be available to investigate any serious crime, including missing persons, should a local district officer require it. This is in addition to the existing specialist services available in the form of fingerprint, ballistic, photography and forensic expertise and the services of other units such as the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation, the Garda Sub-Aqua Unit, the Criminal Assets Bureau and the Domestic Violence Unit. All these units might be relevant to a case involving a missing person and the Garda Commissioner has told me he does not think it would be appropriate to set up a specific missing persons unit. He is anxious that all the resources of the State are made available in such cases.

As the Deputy knows, there are very different circumstances attached to cases involving missing persons. For example, they can range from a person who walks out of his house, gets on a boat and leaves the country to, sadly, more sinister or suspicious ones where a person disappears and a crime is suspected. One can never tell which elements of expertise will be required in following up a case. I agree with the Garda Commissioner that the reorganisation of the specialist units in the way he has done is the best way of dealing with cases involving missing persons. Most years approximately 1,500 people are reported missing, while the number not traced can be as low as eight, 12, 13 or 17. While the figure is low, I realise that behind each of these cases is a family and wide family circle who are distressed and distraught. I am satisfied with what the Garda Commissioner has told me about the specialist units.

I am not in the same position as a Minister for Justice in encouraging the Garda Commissioner to establish a missing persons unit and I can only outline the case as best I can to the Minister. The distraught families of missing persons are of the view, almost unanimously, that a missing persons unit should be established as a matter of common humanity and sensitivity. The difficulty is that the families concerned do not know whether their loved ones have met a violent death and are not in a position to give them a Christian burial and have no place to go to grieve. This is a great humanitarian tragedy and in this context, it behoves the State and our sovereign Government to do everything possible to try to alleviate the terrible burden being carried by these families.

Will the Minister, even at this late stage, encourage the Garda Commissioner to establish a missing persons unit, recognising that in all probability there are people in society who are guilty of murder and who cannot be brought to trial until this matter is resolved?

A member of one of the families of a missing person told me he would like to see a specialist unit established. I do not wish to be offensive to the families of missing persons but the Garda Commissioner is responsible for tackling crime, the investigation of cases involving missing persons, etc., and I have to be guided by his expertise, knowledge and experience and that of senior police officers in determining how best their services can be deployed. The Garda Commissioner has assured me that he has reviewed all the specialist units and does not see any advantage in setting up a special missing persons unit.

I assure the Deputy that the files on missing persons remain open. Some cases involving people who went missing five or six years ago have since been solved and people are now serving long sentences for their murder. I assure the families of missing persons that the files are not closed, the cases are continuously investigated and any new evidence or information is included in the files. It is not a question of whether the families have called for the establishment of a missing persons unit but a question of judgment for good policing by the Garda Commissioner, with whom I agree.

I put it to the Minister that there can be no argument with the fact that a specialist unit concentrating on missing persons is the best way forward in this matter. A specialist unit concentrating on this problem and gathering expertise would have a greater chance of success in locating missing persons than a force obliged to deal with other serious matters also.

The Garda have had great success in finding missing persons. The figures speak for themselves; approximately 1,500 people people go missing every year but approximately 1,500 are found. Obviously, small numbers of people are not found but the problem is not as serious as the Deputy is trying to imply. In 1996, 1,848 people went missing, but the whereabouts of 1,840 of those was identified. I will pass on the Deputy's comments to the Commissioner. This is a matter for judgment by the Commissioner and he has assured me the availability of all the specialist units for the investigation of missing person cases is a better and more effective policing method. I assure the Deputy the Garda will continue to examine and I hope reach conclusions on the remaining cases, particularly those involving women who have gone missing in recent years. Only a small number have not been found but the Garda will continue to search for them.