State's forensic chief says current facility is unsuitable for Irish DNA database

The head of the State’s forensic science agency has warned that her facility is “unsuitable” for operating the long-awaited DNA database.
State's forensic chief says current facility is unsuitable for Irish DNA database

Dr Sheila Willis, director general of Forensic Science Ireland, said she is also concerned that construction of its replacement building is not going to begin until 2019.

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, who resurrected the project in the budget, has described the FSI’s building as a “1970s office block” which is “outdated and in need of modernisation”.

Dr Willis said it is “not tenable” for the FSI to survive until construction starts and said she hopes to persuade Ms Fitzgerald that the new facility is “needed more urgently”.

Her concerns are heightened with the imminent operation of the new DNA database, due to be commenced by Ms Fitzgerald soon.

The DNA database, first promised in early 2007, has been repeatedly delayed by successive governments.

A new facility for FSI, which is currently based in Garda headquarters, has been mooted for over 15 years. The most recent plan collapsed in 2009 with the recession.

“I would have expected it to be restarted when the economy began to recover, but I didn’t expect that it wouldn’t be starting until 2019,” said Dr Willis.

She said the new building would be constructed in Backweston, Co Kildare, and that it had planning permission.

“It’s ready to go,” she said. “It’s not tenable to survive that long in existing, unsuitable facilities. I would hope to persuade the minister that the new facility is needed more urgently than 2020.”

She was speaking to the Irish Examiner as the FSI today launches its Strategic Plan 2015-18 and marks its 40th anniversary this year.

Dr Willis said the experience of DNA databases in other countries was that casework demand “rises exponentially” once police realise its value in crime investigation.

“DNA needs additional working space,” she said. “If the database is to work we need more samples and they need to be processed. So, although an interim database will be established, we have to get somewhere else to process the additional samples expected as it grows.”

Dr Willis said because of the increased sensitivity around handling DNA, it needs specialist laboratories such as those in Britain.

“This is hi-tech work and we have a converted office block,” Dr Willis said.

“The facilities in which DNA samples are being produced in Ireland are out of line with best practice.”

She stressed they were doing checks on samples to make sure “we are not having contamination issues” and said they had the technology to start the database.

Dr Willis said Ireland was one of the last countries in Europe that didn’t have a DNA database.

She welcomed the 25 new staff, announced in the budget, and is awaiting their arrival. The FSI nominally has 96 staff, but currently has 77 employees.

The DNA database will have a number of divisions. Its investigation division will have a crime scene index where samples will be taken from the locations of crime.

There will also be a reference index, containing profiles from suspects and offenders in serious crimes.

The two registers can be cross-checked and searched. There is also an identification division, containing profiles of missing or unknown persons.

A spokesman for Ms Fitzgerald said there were “many different initiatives” in the justice area of the Capital Expenditure Programme, including a new family courts complex, construction of Garda stations, and provision of Garda vehicles. He said that funding for the FSI facility “will not become available until 2019”.

He added: “However, if an opportunity arises to bring forward the start date of construction at Backweston that opportunity will be pursued.”

He said the DNA Act would be commenced “very shortly”.

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