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Why can't the remains of 5 unidentified men buried in Ireland be exhumed for DNA testing?

There have been renewed calls for a centralised database and repository as currently the State does not know how many unidentified remains there are.

File photo
File photo
Image: Mark Kobayashi-Hillary via Wikimedia Commons

THE STATE DOES not know exactly how many unidentified remains there are in the country – or their precise locations.

There have been calls in previous years for a centralised database to keep track of unidentified remains. These calls have been renewed now after news last year that advanced DNA processes had helped in the identification of the remains of three people in a six-month period.

In October, bone fragments that had been found in Bunratty, Co Clare in 2001 were identified as belonging to Aengus ‘Gussie’ Shanahan, a 20-year-old man from Limerick who had been missing for 18 years.

The remains of Margaret Glennon, who went missing in 1995 were recovered in 2014, but were only identified recently using these new tests.

The processes also helped to match remains found in 2002 to James Gallagher, who has been missing since 1999.

At the National Missing Person’s Day ceremony in December, RTÉ journalist Barry Cummins, who was master of ceremonies, spoke of unidentified people – five men in particular – who have been buried before any DNA samples were ever taken. These are remains found in the 80s or 90s, before the science was there to allow for a full DNA profile to be established.

I know there are cases of unidentified men buried in Dublin, Wexford, Wicklow, Leitrim and Cork. Five cases I can think of where the only way those cases can be solved is by an exhumation taking place and DNA profiles being established. I know it can be done in a very dignified way.

He said this is something we need to talk about more – the need to solve these cases and “restore dignity” to those men.

Exhumation

Forensic anthropologist Dr René Gapert has been trying to pull these figures together, but he said there is no single point of contact. The only way to get an idea of how many of these unidentified bodies there are is to contact each individual coroner.

TheJournal.ie attempted this task back in 2015. We contacted every coroner in the country multiple times to ask about unidentified remains in their region. Just over half responded over the course of a number of months. Most said they and none or were not aware whether there were any.

Gapert said that in some cases new coroners have taken over a district and are not aware of older cases in their jurisdiction.

“In other cases files on older cases were in paper format and, quite understandably, the coroners cannot be expected to make time to trawl through paperwork that is 15, 20, 30 even 40 years old and older.”

There are guidelines on how to apply for an exhumation. This can be done by family members, but in the case of unidentified bodies this is obviously not an option.

An application can also be made by a coroner at the request of gardaí, but the Department of Justice guidelines specify that this is in cases where a death is considered suspicious. This may not be the case with some of the unidentified remains.

Gapert said he believes the “any possibility of identifying any of the currently unidentified remains already receives the utmost support by the Department of Justice and the coroners”.

“In many cases it would be the staff of the Missing Persons Bureau of An Garda Síochána who will apply for exhumation licenses in these cases and I believe that they are actively doing this at the moment.”

In December Forensic Science Ireland said new DNA processes will allow scientists to revisit around 20 cases where there are archived samples available. 

Gapert said the probability of obtaining viable DNA for familial identifications is much higher now than 20 years ago.

Other methodologies applied at the time of exhumation may also be useful in filling in missing details about the deceased such as forensic stable isotope analysis in order to identify where someone may have spent their formative years geographically speaking. 
Depending on what tissues remain intact further isotopes may also identify someone’s travel movements in the months before their life came to an end in Ireland.

Centralised database

He recently put together a proposal for a centralised database for unidentified remains, which was brought by Fine Gael Senator Colm Burke to the Minister for Justice and Equality in September.

The establishment of this database would require collaboration between all the coroners,the Missing Persons Bureau of An Garda Siochána (AGS), the Office of the State Pathologist (OSP) and the Forensic Science Ireland (FSI) laboratory.

Three functions would make up such a unit, according to the proposal:

  • The unidentified remains database could link in with existing databases in FSI and AGS and provide annual statistics on open and solved cases;
  • A State repository for all unidentified remains until such time they are either identified or buried according to the directions of the coroners;
  • A forensic human remains identification service which can be accessed by all State agencies as well as local councils and families on a 24/7 basis. It would be headed by an accredited forensic anthropology and human identification specialist.

The service would be responsible for the collection of all information on past cases and would computerise those as well as incorporating all future cases when they come in.

“This would mean that no remains in any Irish jurisdiction are unaccounted for and the state of each investigation is known.” All cases would be reviewed annually.

He said be believes this could be run for between €250,000 and €350,000 a year. 

Gapert said the purpose of the proposal is not to criticise the “tremendous efforts” of the State agencies involved in solving  missing persons cases. 

“Far from it, it builds on the work that has gone before and provides a possibility of moving forensic human identification in Ireland forward to a point where we could become a leading example in this field.”

‘A proper burial’

Senator Colm Burke told TheJournal.ie that this would be an important step and could help provide some sense of closure for the relatives of the people whose remains were found but not yet identified. 

“This year alone we’ve had three cases where families now know that there is closure, that they know that the body has been identified and they’ve been able to go through a proper burial for the person.

“While the numbers of cases may be very small they are very important to the people involved and we shouldn’t forget that.”

He said he will be pushing for this in 2019 and for the Missing Persons Bill, which has passed all stages of the Seanad, to be part of the programme in the next Dáil term. 

The Department of Justice told TheJournal.ie that, while “there are not figure available with regard to the total number of unidentified bodies in the country”, every effort is made by the various agencies to identify any unidentified remains “where possible”.

“The coroner – who is an independent official responsible for the investigation of deaths – seeks, as a key element of their functions, to identify bodies found in their district.

“As part of this work, coroners ensure that sufficient tissue samples are retained prior to burial or cremation of the body in order to potentially assist with identification at some future stage.”

The department did not answer TheJournal.ie‘s question about the possible exhumation of remains of the five unidentified men where no DNA profiles have ever been established. 

It said Minister Charlie Flanagan has asked the various relevant divisions and agencies within the department’s remit to examine Senator Burke’s proposal carefully. 

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