Commencement Matters

Overseas Missions

I will be brief. The debate I have asked for is on the need for the Minister for Defence to outline the policy now being implemented by his Department on security matters in the Middle East. I should have gone further and asked how it impacts on us in Ireland with regard to security. A number of people have raised this issue with me when I meet people in the community and on the doorsteps. Many feel we are somehow vulnerable in Ireland and in Europe generally, especially in the wake of the Paris attacks. People wonder what policy Ireland, and the Department of Defence, has in place to ensure our safety when it comes to the war in the Middle East, ISIS and everything that is going on there and how it might impact on Europe. I would be grateful for the Minister's comments.

As Minister of State in the Department of Defence, I thank the Senator for raising the matter of the policy now being implemented by the Department in relation to security matters in the Middle East. The White Paper on Defence sets out Ireland's defence policy framework for the next decade. It is based on a forward-looking assessment of the security environment, reflecting the wider defence and security policy framework, the increasingly complex nature of security threats in the world today and the need for a full spectrum comprehensive response.

A feature of Ireland's policy response to these security challenges is continued strong support for the multilateral system of collective security represented by the United Nations in the maintenance of international peace and security. Ireland's approach to international security is characterised, inter alia, by our willingness to participate in peace support operations throughout the world and by our commitment to achieving collective security through the United Nations, in particular. As of 1 December, 492 Defence Forces personnel are serving overseas, of whom 359 are serving in the Middle East. Of the 359 personnel serving in the Middle East, 198 are serving in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, 149 are serving in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, and 12 are serving in the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation, UNTSO.

The 51st Infantry Group deployed last month to the UNIFIL mission in Lebanon. The Irish contingent, comprising 198 personnel, is based primarily in Camp 2-45 as part of a joint battalion with Finland. The joint Finnish-Irish battalion is tasked primarily with patrolling, reconnaissance and occupying two static posts on the "blue line" separating Israel and Lebanon while operating in close co-ordination and co-operation with the Lebanese armed forces in sector west of UNIFIL's area of operations.

The battalion implements force protection measures appropriate to operational and security developments in the region. The battalion has a wide range of capabilities, affording excellent operational effectiveness while also providing extensive force protection capacity. I am advised by the Defence Forces that commanders in the mission, at all levels, liaise with the host nation, the Lebanese armed forces and local stakeholders to ensure all aspects of the mission, including freedom of movement, are achievable. Ireland will take command of the joint contingent in November next year and will deploy approximately an additional 160 personnel with the contingent. The security situation in Lebanon will continue to be kept under review by the Defence Forces and departmental officials.

The 50th Infantry Group, comprising 141 Irish personnel and serving with UNDOF is based in Camp Ziouani in the Golan Heights. The contingent comprises a force reserve company and support elements. Their role includes the provision of a quick reaction force, which is on standby to assist with ongoing operations within the UNDOF area of responsibility. The Irish infantry group is also tasked with carrying out patrols and convoy escorts as necessary. In addition, eight Defence Forces personnel are also based in UNDOF headquarters in Camp Ziouani, including the deputy force commander, Brigadier General Anthony Hanlon. The current Irish contingent which deployed to UNDOF in September 2015 undertakes regular drills and exercises to ensure all personnel are aware of the force protection actions to be carried out in the event of a deterioration of the security situation.

The UNDOF mission has faced a challenging time, especially during the past year or so. The escalation of the conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic has affected the mission's area of operations. While the security situation in the UNDOF area of responsibility remains volatile and unpredictable, with ongoing fighting between different elements, I am advised that UNDOF has not detected any significant increase in violence or attacks on UN personnel or facilities. Following the significant events in August 2014 in the area of separation, there was a fundamental realignment of the UNDOF mission with a view to minimising unacceptable risks to peacekeepers, while continuing to implement the mission's mandate. Most UNDOF personnel are now deployed on the Israeli side of the area of separation. A number of enhancement measures were undertaken at Camp Ziouani since the relocation of the Irish contingent in September 2014. Ongoing threat assessments are carried out in the mission area and personal equipment and force assets are continually reviewed to ensure that Defence Forces personnel are appropriately equipped to fulfil their role. In this regard, following a recent review of the locations in the UNDOF mission area occupied by personnel of the Irish contingent, a Defence Forces engineering team was deployed in early September to undertake additional protective works. I am satisfied that all appropriate security measures are in place to ensure the safety of all Defence Forces personnel serving in the UNDOF mission.

The decision by the Government to send troops overseas is never taken lightly. The safety of all Defence Forces personnel serving on all overseas missions is always a concern to the Government and to the military authorities. Troops selected for overseas service undergo a rigorous programme of mission-specific training. Such training which is updated on an ongoing basis in the light of increased threat has been designed to allow Defence Forces personnel to carry out their tasks and to provide for their protection. The presence of the UNIFIL, UNDOF and UNTSO missions remains an important element in ensuring stability in the Middle East region. Ireland remains committed to supporting UN missions in the Middle East in support of international peace and security.

I thank the Minister of State for the answer. It is very comprehensive. I may need to bring another question another day in regard to steps being taken to make people aware of the security measures we are taking in Ireland in the wake of recent happenings in Europe.

Missing Persons

I welcome the Minister of State. I congratulate him and Oulart-The Ballagh on the terrific win at the weekend. It has been a long time coming for the club and well done to them. I would also spare a thought for Clough-Ballacolla. They threw it away against Oulart-The Ballagh a few weeks ago and it would have been great for Laois hurling if they had succeeded, but I wish the best of luck to the club continuing in the all-Ireland series.

The reason I have asked the Minister of State to come to the Seanad relates to the very tragic and quite frightening case of two missing persons. One is Anastasija Varslavane, a Latvian national, who lost her mother here in Ireland at the age of 17 years and is left without anyone belonging to her. She has distant relatives and a grandmother in Latvia, but no one here in Ireland. At 21 years of age, Anastasija has disappeared, with her partner, William Maughan. William is from a very well respected family in the Killinarden estate. His father, Joe, is a very prominent member of the community there, who has given his heart, soul and life to the community in Killinarden through his involvement with the Sacred Heart soccer club. William who was about the same age as me and his young, beautiful and three months pregnant girlfriend went missing in April this year. They are missing, presumed dead.

William and Anastasija are known to have fallen into company with a very dangerous and violent gangland figure who offered a large sum of money to William to carry out an assassination on behalf of the gang. William refused to comply and he and Anastasija are now missing and presumed dead. If this case happened anywhere else, there would be uproar. If it happened to an Irish citizen in a foreign country, we would all know about it. We saw in the cases of the murders of Karen Buckley in Glasgow and Jill Meagher in Australia how there was uproar among the relevant Irish diasporas and involvement by the Irish authorities, including An Garda Síochána. When it comes to taking on gangland persons in this State who have links with international crime and are involved in drugs, trafficking, theft of vehicles and murder, everything should be done to bring their activities to an end.

Will the Minister of State indicate whether it would be possible or appropriate to invite the Latvian authorities to come to Ireland and be briefed on the case by gardaí in Ashbourne who are doing their absolute best to get justice for these two families? I ask that consideration be given to the issuing of such an invitation through the offices of the Department of Justice and Equality.

I thank the Senator for his congratulations on the victory of Oulart-The Ballagh. Although it is not my local club, I have a personal interest in its fortunes because my nephew, Barry Kehoe, is the captain. I hope he and his team mates are victorious against Na Piarsaigh in February and go on to bring an all-Ireland title back to Wexford.

On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality who is in Brussels this morning, I thank the Senator for raising this matter. The Garda authorities have informed the Minister that the ongoing investigation into the disappearance of Anastasija, or Anna, Varslavane remains entirely focused within this jurisdiction. Should the need arise to engage with the Latvian law enforcement authorities in respect of the investigation, that will be advanced through Europol channels. Under mutual legal assistance provisions, a judicial authority in one state may seek the assistance of the authorities in another state in obtaining evidence required in the course of a criminal investigation of criminal proceedings. The Minister is informed by the Garda authorities that the missing persons bureau has been conducting a full review of its existing policies with a view to ensuring the force's policies and procedures are in line with international best practice and that missing person incidents are afforded the best possible policing response. The review is ongoing and includes a consultation process with partner agencies concerned with missing persons.

The third national Missing Persons Day was hosted by the Minister yesterday, 2 December 2015, at Farmleigh in Dublin. The inaugural day was held on 4 December 2013 and has since been developed into an annual campaign with a number of objectives. It commemorates those who have gone missing and recognises the ongoing suffering of their families and friends. It also serves to raise public awareness of open or unsolved missing persons cases and provides a platform to highlight the support services available to people who have lost a loved one.

Last month, the Minister announced the commencement of DNA legislation allowing for the launch of a new state-of-the-art DNA database system. The database became operational on 20 November and is based in Forensic Science Ireland in the Phoenix Park. The new database will assist An Garda Síochána in finding and identifying missing or unknown people. A missing and unknown persons index will hold the DNA profiles developed from biological samples relating to missing persons, which come, for example, from their clothing. It will also hold profiles from their close blood relatives, with the consent of those relatives, who will have similar DNA. The DNA legislation also provides for the exchange of DNA profiles of missing or unknown persons with law enforcement authorities in other jurisdictions. The database will, therefore, facilitate searches for missing or unknown persons abroad as well as in Ireland.

The Senator asked about the possibility of representatives of the Latvian authorities being invited to Ireland to speak with gardaí about the ongoing investigation into this case. I will convey that request directly to the Minister who will, in turn, pass it on to the Garda Commissioner. If any member of the public has information on the case, I encourage him or her to bring it to the Garda. It is very sad for any family to have a loved one missing.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I realise the Garda authorities are doing everything in their power to get to the bottom of this. Ambassador Apals is quite pleased with their work on the case. However, the fact remains there are ruthless, violent and callous killers on the loose. The Maughans attended the Missing Persons Day event yesterday to which the Minister of State referred. I have met Joe and Nell and their lives are absolutely torn apart by this. This is the second child they have lost, one of William's siblings having died from meningitis. There have been ongoing efforts to harass and intimidate members of the Maughan family for raising the case. In fact, William's sister was forced out of her home by this criminal gang. Such activity is truly frightening and must not be tolerated in our society.

I welcome the introduction of the DNA database, which may help in solving this case. I join the Minister of State in appealing to anybody who has information to come forward. There are people who know what happened to William and Anastasija. I urge them to be brave and convey that information to the Garda. It could allow Joe and Nell to give their child a decent Christian burial. William's parents feel he and Anastasia are dead and their bodies have been disappeared. That adds to their trauma. Anybody who has information that will help in locating their bodies should come forward and help to ensure the Maughans are able to bury their son.

Sitting suspended at 11 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.