Fresh Stardust inquests a step on the long road to justice

Fresh Stardust inquests a step on the long road to justice
The Stardust victims are remembered at a press conference this week after the announcement that there will be a fresh inquest into the deaths of the 48 young people at the nightclub in Artane, north Dublin, in 1981. Picture: Stephen Collins

New inquests have finally been granted into the 48 deaths from the Stardust blaze of 1981 that devastated the local communities, write Conall Ó Fátharta and Aoife Moore.

ALMOST 40 years after the Stardust fire which took the lives of 48 people, the families of the victims are still fighting for answers. The Stardust Victims’ Committee has battled on through 16 governments, 18 justice ministers, and eight taoisigh. They have been refused a fresh inquiry into the tragedy — twice.

Like many groups fighting for answers from the Irish State, they have had to learn to be patient. Very patient.

This week they won a significant battle with the confirmation by Attorney General Séamus Woulfe that fresh inquests into all 48 deaths will be commenced.

He said: “Having carefully considered all aspects of the matter, the attorney general has formed the opinion that fresh inquests into the Stardust deaths are advisable. This is because he considers that in the original Inquests there was an insufficiency of inquiry as to how the deaths occurred, namely, a failure to sufficiently consider those of the surrounding circumstances that concern the cause or causes of the fire. The attorney general is thus satisfied that the holding of fresh inquests is, on balance, in the public interest and in the interests of justice.”

Campaigners know this is just a step on a much longer road, but the emotion they felt at the news was palpable.

Antoinette Keegan, who survived the Stardust blaze but lost her two sisters Mary, 19, and Martina, 16, said she felt the families would be left waiting — strung along due to neglect from the Government and delays by the attorney general.

The Stardust Victims’ Committee had protested outside Government Buildings on Tuesday before being given the news they had hoped for on Wednesday evening.

“I can’t believe it. I’m over the moon, I just can’t believe it’s happened. I really believed we would be fobbed off again. We were told July 16, then the end of July, then August, and now September, I never thought it would come. When the solicitor phoned me I just couldn’t believe it,” said Ms Keegan.

Maurice McHugh, who lost his only child, Caroline McHugh, 17, in the fire, said the news is the next big step in their journey for the truth.

He said: 

I had a lump in my throat when I heard the news, it’s great news, we’re absolutely chuffed. We have to start somewhere and this is the first step.

The fire took the lives of 48 people and left families devastated and searching for answers. They are still looking for the State for answers almost 40 years after the fire.

Most of the victims came from the Artane and Coolock areas — the communities were left reeling by the tragedy.

The initial response by the State to the disaster was swift but ineffective. Within four days, the terms of reference for a tribunal of inquiry were published. Chaired by Justice Ronan Keane, its first meeting was held 12 days after the fire. Its findings were to become infamous and have been disputed by the families and survivors of the Stardust fire ever since.

The Stardust tribunal concluded that the cause of the fire was “probable arson” based on the theory that someone had slashed open a seat and set fire to the stuffing. However, the report acknowledged that there was no evidence that this had actually happened or that the fire was deliberately started.

The finding enabled the owners of the premises — the Butterly family — to receive almost £700,000 in compensation.

This was despite the fact the tribunal report revealed that exits were locked and chained on the night “with a reckless disregard for the safety of the people on the premises”.

Flammable materials were used in the decor, combustible materials were improperly stored, and faults in the electrics had been raised several times.

Following the fire, no criminal charges were ever laid.

Dublin lord mayor Fergus O’Brien surveys the scene. The initial response by the State to the disaster was swift but ineffective. Within four days, the terms of reference for a tribunal of inquiry were published.
Dublin lord mayor Fergus O’Brien surveys the scene. The initial response by the State to the disaster was swift but ineffective. Within four days, the terms of reference for a tribunal of inquiry were published.

In the years that followed, the families continued to fight for answers, with hundreds suing the owners of the Stardust for disregard for public safety. Many also sued the State for its failure to enforce public-safety regulations.

Many of the families didn’t have the financial means to pay solicitors to take the cases they felt they needed to take to get justice for their loved ones. This was the 1980s — a bleak time economically for most Irish households.

As a result, heartbroken Stardust families and survivors turned to credit union loans to take their cases against the State.

Given the media headlines and bad publicity this would generate, the State reacted by setting up the compensation tribunal in 1986.

It was established to try to avoid a series of court cases against the State by families seeking accountability for the deaths of their loved ones, but again it was to fall well short of what survivors wanted.

However, it was the only vehicle available to them, so, over 49 days, survivors came forward to relay their experiences to the tribunal and have their physical injuries accounted for and tallied for compensation.

When it was completed, it awarded some £10.5m to a total of 823 people — with no one receiving more than £200,000.

A total of five people received £100,000, with 24 receiving more than £50,000. The majority of those who appeared before the tribunal received between £5,000 and £10,000.

One of the largest groups — bereaved parents — received a payment in respect of each death set at a maximum of £7,500.

The report compiled by chairman judge Donal Barrington; solicitor Noel Smith; and then barrister later judge Hugh O’Flaherty at least acknowledged the deep trauma suffered by families and survivors and that they had been dreadfully neglected since the fire. It recommended they be supported into the future.

“We were struck by the devastation which the tragedy appeared to have caused to a local community. A particularly poignant aspect of the tragedy was the extreme youth of many of the victims. Nearly all of the victims suffered, in greater or lesser degree, from psychological problems, which are apparently common in survivors of a disaster. One of these was a feeling of guilt at having survived the disaster, where others perished,” said the report.

Some 20 years later, and on the 25th anniversary of the fire, the Stardust Victims’ Committee demanded a fresh tribunal of inquiry and the reopening of inquests.

Examining the aftermath of the Stardust fire. Flammable materials were used in the decor, combustible materials were improperly stored, and faults in the electrics had been raised several times. No criminal charges were ever laid.
Examining the aftermath of the Stardust fire. Flammable materials were used in the decor, combustible materials were improperly stored, and faults in the electrics had been raised several times. No criminal charges were ever laid.

The group argued that the original inquests were insufficient as they simply declared mainly that people died of burns and smoke inhalation without any effort made to investigate contributing circumstances.

Three years later, in 2009, the government commissioned a review, led by senior counsel Paul Coffey, into the original Stardust tribunal.

Mr Coffey found that it was wrong of the original tribunal to make a conclusion that the Stardust fire was “probable arson”. However, he said that the review stated that the cause of the fire could most likely not be established by the setting up of a new inquiry.

The families welcomed the finding relating to arson but were disappointed that a recommendation for a new inquiry was not put forward.

However, this disappointment was to turn to anger when it emerged that an earlier version of the Coffey review, submitted to the government in late 2008, suggested that the families had a good cause for a new inquiry.

The families had to wait almost another decade for another development, this time in the form of another review in 2017.

The Government appointed retired judge Pat McCartan to examine if any new evidence had emerged that would warrant a new inquiry.

He concluded that there was not and said that the two versions of the Coffey report were down to a mistaken interpretation by the families.

The families rejected the McCartan findings, pointing out that the review failed to interview a witness who lived near the Stardust and called the fire brigade earlier than any other previous witness to report flames on the roof of the building.

This witness recollection tallies with the families’ view that the fire began in the roof space of the premises where combustible materials — including cooking oils and cleaning products — were stored near to overloaded electrics.

Last year, the families launched a campaign seeking a reopening of inquests. The campaign involved the collection of 48,000 signed postcards calling on the attorney general to accede to the request.

That appeal was heard, with Mr Woulfe confirming earlier this week that a fresh inquest will be held into the 48 deaths “in the public interest and in the interests of justice”.

Timeline

  • 1981:

    48 young people are killed and more than 200 are badly injured when fire breaks out at the Stardust Nightclub in Artane, Dublin, during a Valentine’s disco.

  • 1982:

    The report of the Stardust Tribunal is published, with chairman Mr Justice Ronan Keane concluding that the cause of the fire was “probable arson” based on the hypothesis that somebody had slashed open a seat and set fire to the stuffing, despite acknowledging that there was actually no evidence that this had happened or that the blaze was deliberate.

    The finding enables the owners of the premises to receive almost £700,000 in compensation. Despite running a venue where exits were chained, barred or blocked, flammable materials were used in the decor, combustible materials were improperly stored and where faults in the electrics had been raised several times, no criminal charges are laid.

  • 1986:

    The Stardust Compensation Tribunal is established to try to avoid a series of court cases against the State by families seeking accountability for the deaths of their loved ones.

    It awards £10.5m to a total of 823 people, remarking that the victims and survivors had suffered terribly and been dreadfully neglected since the fire. It recommends they be supported into the future.

  • 2006:

    On the 25th anniversary of the fire, the Stardust Victims Committee demand a fresh tribunal of inquiry and the reopening of inquests as the inquests were cursory, declaring mainly that victims died of burns or smoke inhalation without delving further into the contributing circumstances.

  • 2009:

    A Government-commissioned review by senior counsel Paul Coffey into the Keane Tribunal finds it was wrong to give a conclusion of probable arson. The families are pleased with this but disappointed that the review states that the cause of the fire could most likely not be established by further inquiry.

    They are angry to discover soon after that an earlier version of the review, presented to Government in late 2008, suggested the families had a good case for a new inquiry.

  • 2017:

    Retired judge Pat McCartan is appointed by the Government to examine whether there is any new evidence that would warrant a fresh inquiry. He concludes there is not. He also says the difference between the two versions of the Coffey report was down to mistaken interpretation by the families.

    The families reject the findings, arguing the review refused to interview a witness, also excluded by Keane and Coffey, who lived nearby and called the fire brigade earlier than any other witness to report flames on the roof of the Stardust.

    The families have long argued that the fire began in the roof space where combustible materials — cooking oils and cleaning fluids — were stored close to overloaded electrics.

  • 2018:

    The families run a campaign to collect 48,000 signed postcards calling on the attorney general to use his powers under the Coroners Act to order the reopening of the inquests. The postcards are hand delivered by the families to his office.

  • September 2019:

    The attorney general, Seamus Woulfe, has confirmed that a fresh inquest will be held into the 48 deaths at the Stardust fire.

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