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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 30 Mar 2010

Vol. 201 No. 13

Registration of Deaths.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to handle this motion, but the Minister for Social and Family Affairs is doing so instead. He might explain why, as this has to do with amending the Civil Registration Act 2004. However, I am delighted that he is present and I expect a positive response to this sensitive request born from the most tragic circumstances.

Will the Government amend the Civil Registration Act to facilitate the registration of deaths in Ireland of Irish citizens who have died abroad? The Minister is probably aware of the position because the two young men who died last summer were from our constituency of Galway West. It is because of the Facebook petition by their parents and friends that I am in a position to highlight the matter. One of the young men was Keith O'Reilly from Merlin Park, Galway, who is buried in Leenane cemetery. The other young man was Brian Forde from Athenry who was in America for a few days. He was a young teacher in Loughrea.

It is not the case that all citizens who die abroad have their deaths registered and recorded in Ireland. The 2004 Act covers the registration of births, stillbirths and deaths. Under the Act, the death of an Irish citizen who dies abroad is only recorded and registered in the Republic if he or she was on an Irish aircraft or ship, a foreign ship or aircraft that was in transit or a serving member of the Garda Síochána or the Defence Forces. This is all fine, but it means that for the majority of citizens who die abroad their deaths will never be recorded or registered in their home country.

I was stunned to learn as a result of this campaign by the young men's families and friends that in 2009, 244 Irish citizens had died abroad and that their deaths had not been recorded in this country. Can one imagine how great the number would be over time? Is this an oversight in the Act or deliberate? I need the Minister to explain the reason.

The lack of registration at home makes life more difficult for the family members left behind. It also means that figuring out what happened to one's ancestors will be extremely difficult for future generations searching through Irish documentation. The people who have died are not statistics. They were born and, in many cases, educated in Ireland. They may even have worked here. The two young men to whom I have referred were on holiday in the United States and deserve the right to be recognised by their country, even in death. It is important that we make this change to help with the grieving process.

I will provide some quotations from the families, but one of the mothers has told me that for every beginning, there has to be an end and that her son who began in this country has to be given the dignity and justice of having his death registered here. It is also important for future families who may have to go through this awful experience.

Already, 1,174 people have signed the on-line petition. I attended the funerals of both of the young men who died in the United States. The Minister may also have attended them. They died ten days apart but quite separately. Coincidentally, they had shared a flat in New York the previous summer. One of the mothers said:

They were our kids. They were only there on holiday. There are no records of their deaths in this country. There should be a beginning and an end to everything. We need closure. Without registration of their deaths in Ireland it is unfinished business.

That mother said she might accept the situation if her son had permanently emigrated.

We need to look at the cases where one might not see fit to register an Irish citizen's death abroad, perhaps if he or she had gained citizenship in another country. One must live in the United States, for example, for five years before qualifying for citizenship. I support these families' needs. Where a young person is on holiday or is working abroad temporarily the Government should see fit to register his or her death in his or her home country.

The law in the United Kingdom changed in this regard within the last ten years. If a visitor from the United States or the United Kingdom died in Ireland his or her death would be registered in Ireland and in his or her home country. Perhaps we should look at how other countries do things.

The "Help bring them home" petition can be seen on Facebook. Keith O'Reilly's mother said, "Life is just so different now. We are just doing it for Keith because he is pushing us along to do it."

I was interested to read some of the comments placed on Facebook by the families and young friends of the two men who died. Colm Lehane said, "Amend the Act". Sheila O'Neill said, "Help bring them home". Dominique Mulvaney said, "It is not right not to register someone's death just because they died outside Ireland". Another said, "This is a very important petition and I trust that many more people will sign it, leading to a change in this legislation". Mark Quinlivan commented, "This is a disgrace. Get it sorted and let their deaths be registered". A similar comment reads:

This is the most ridiculous Act ever. It needs to be changed. A terrible law. Please change the law. Imagine if it was your son or daughter. It would be the right way of doing things, especially because they are Irish.

How would the Minister or I feel if the person involved was our son, daughter, brother or sister? These young people were born and educated in Ireland. They went through primary, secondary and third level education. Brian Ford was due back in Ireland the following Monday to do an interview for a permanent teaching post with County Galway VEC. Keith O'Reilly was in the United States for the summer on a J1 visa.

One on-line comment reads:

As an Irish citizen, I believe this is of huge importance. Please do the right thing and amend the 2004 Act. It is vital that this amendment is put through. It is a basic right for parents and families who have suffered the loss of a loved one abroad who is also an Irish citizen.

Another reads, "I am an Irish citizen living in the US and I fully support this petition".

I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply. This issue will be brought before the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs at the end of April. I hope the Minister's reply will allay their fears.

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Seanadóir as ucht na ceiste seo a thógáil. Ar ndóigh, bhí na daoine céanna i dteagmháil liomsa faoin gceist seo. An fáth go bhfuil mise ag tógáil na ceiste ná go dtagann an cúram seo faoi mo Roinnse agus ní faoin Roinn Dlí agus Cirt, Comhionannais agus Athchóirithe Dlí. This matter is the responsibility of my Department and that is why it will come before the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs.

The provisions and procedures governing the registration of deaths in Ireland are contained in Part 5 of the Civil Registration Act 2004 and these are as follows. Where a death occurs in the State it is the duty of a qualified informant (normally a relative of the deceased) to attend at a registrar's office and register the death on foot of a certificate of cause of death supplied by a registered medical practitioner. Where a death is referred to a coroner, the death is registered by a registrar on foot of a coroner's certificate.

In general, only deaths which occur within the State are registerable. However, Section 39 of the Act, provides for the following exceptions: deaths of members of the Garda Síochána or the Permanent Defence Force or of the spouse or specified members of the family of such a member outside the State while the member is serving outside the State as such member; deaths of persons on board an Irish aircraft or an Irish ship; and deaths of Irish citizens on board a foreign ship or a foreign aircraft travelling to or from a port, or an airport, as the case may be, in the State.

Section 38 of the Act makes provision for the registration of a death of an Irish citizen domiciled in the State in certain specific circumstances. Where the death of an Irish citizen domiciled in the State occurs abroad, the death may be registered here if there was not at the time of the death a system of registration of deaths in the place where the death occurred, or such a system that applied to such a death, or it is not possible to obtain copies of or extracts from civil records of the death, i.e. a death certificate. In other words, if the death could not be registered or if a death certificate could not be obtained, the death can be registered here. Although the number of such cases is extremely small it is considered reasonable to make provision for them.

The reasoning behind these provisions is simply to ensure that where deaths cannot be registered abroad, they can be registered here and that in all cases the relatives of the deceased have available to them a certificate of the death for personal, legal and administrative purposes.

Usually, when an Irish citizen dies abroad, the death is registered by the civil authorities of the place where the death occurred and a certified copy of the death registration is obtainable. This certificate, translated, if necessary, is normally sufficient for all legal and administrative purposes here and for these reasons alone there is no necessity for the death to be registered in the State.

Any broadening of the current provisions will require careful consideration. It will be appreciated that the number of people who live and die in other countries and who have or are entitled to have Irish citizenship is very large. Some second or third generation descendants have rights of citizenship and, of course, anyone born in the North of Ireland is entitled to Irish citizenship. That is why a citizenship only qualification would create grave difficulties. It would have implications both for the registration process itself and for the vital statistics relating to deaths which are derived from registered events.

The number of Irish citizens who are domiciled in Ireland and who die abroad is relatively small in the context of total deaths occurring here in any given year. I fully accept that this was the situation in the case of the two young people mentioned by Senator Healy Eames. The figures available in respect of some recent years are as follows: in 2007, 150 Irish citizens died abroad; in 2008 the figure was 205; in 2009 it was 243; and so far in 2010 it is 48. My understanding is that the vast majority of these people were travelling abroad for leisure or business purposes.

I am conscious of course that each figure represents a tragedy and because the deaths take place away from home it is an additional heartache for the family. In this regard it is, I believe, appropriate for me to remind people going abroad that the same care should be taken in relation to personal safety as when at home.

As I have said already, a death certificate is readily available in the overwhelming majority of these cases. However, I do appreciate that many families of the deceased feel strongly that by registration of the death, the person's death is given recognition in his or her own country and also that this fact would assist during a period of considerable grief.

The Department will therefore have this matter reviewed in the context of future amendments to the Civil Registration Act 2004. I will examine what challenges would arise if we decided to amend the Act. The real challenge in this respect is that citizenship alone would create the possibility that people would seek a death certificate for family members who never lived in this country. The case has been raised by people who are domiciled here and are citizens but who are living away from home for a short period. I will examine that issue but it is in that context that I can do so.

I have one or two questions. I thank the Minister for his time. Am I to understand that he is giving a commitment to examine this matter and is open to considering a five-year rule in this respect? I accept the measure could not be open ad infinitum because that could involve a great number of people. The Minister raised the issue of deaths that occur abroad of Irish citizens domiciled in Ireland. To use his words, they are small in number, but such incidents are of huge importance, such as the 243 such deaths in 2009. Is the Minister giving a commitment that he will seriously consider amending the legislation for those who died abroad who were domiciled in Ireland? Is he open to considering a five-year rule in this respect, in other words, people domiciled in Ireland but who have lived abroad for up to five years?

I have learnt over the years never to make policy on the hoof. I said the matter will be reviewed in the context of future amendments of the Civil Registration Act 2004. I am giving that commitment but I am not going beyond that. One needs to examine all the implications of a decision. In terms of the statistics given, these people were domiciled in Ireland. In other words, they were living in Ireland at the time; it was not a matter of three or four years, they were domiciled here. Therefore, this is not the same as what the Senator is seeking and I do not know the implications of her proposal. There is a seanfhocail, "look before you leap". There is no point in making policy on the hoof that one might subsequently find is not practical. It is much more practical to do what I said we would do, namely, to examine this matter in the context of any review of this Act, consider the implications of it and then make a decision. When one makes a decision in such circumstances, one can stick by it rather than making policy on the hoof and then finding there are good——

When might the Minister commit to a reviewing this legislation?

I am not giving any commitment on time either because it is not practical to do so.

In such very tragic and sad circumstances, I ask the Minister to consider seriously this proposal before this issue comes before the joint committee at the end of April.

I have given the commitment I stated and I am not going beyond that. I am not fully aware of, nor have I had a chance to examine, even on a cursory basis, the implications of the Senator's proposal. I fully recognise how sad these situations are. I happen to know one of the families very well. I did not make the funeral but I visited the family. I am more than aware of the tragedy involved. That said, we cannot make law on the hoof. When the law is changed for one, it is changed for all. One must always examine the unintended consequences of decisions. Commitments made in knowledge are much more valuable than commitments made on the hoof without exploring all the consequences.

I accept what the Minister is saying. I am seeking to establish when he might commence a review.

There is no provision for any further questions.

Then I will speak to the Minister in private.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.50 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 31 March 2010.