In 2006 the fearless investigative journalist Mary Raftery documented a protest by Stardust victims families at the site of the disaster in Dublin’s Artane district, describing how a passerby commented: “It’s time to move on.” Writing in The Irish Times, she characterised the crass remark as the latest in a long line of “wretched dismissals” endured by those whose lives were ripped apart on Valentine’s Day, 1981.
If she were still alive today, the writer and filmmaker noted for her groundbreaking documentary States of Fear would no doubt be shocked that official Ireland continues to dismiss the pain and suffering of Stardust families and survivors. More than 38 years since the fire claimed the lives of 48 people, the Stardust Victims’ Committee is stepping up efforts to get the inquest into the tragedy reopened.
Committee members met the Taoiseach on Wednesday and spoke to him about the recent application put forward to the Attorney General on April 2. The AG has the power to set up a fresh inquest that survivors and bereaved family members believe will finally address the many unanswered questions about that tragic night.
Campaigners say they have new evidence, uncovered through freedom of information requests and previously unheard witness testimony. They also say they have evidence that the ESB had written to the owners of the Stardust about faulty electrical wiring before the fire broke out.
The most recent campaign began last June, and saw the families gather signatures petitioning the AG for a fresh inquest. The tally now stands at more than 48,000 — 1,000 signatures for each victim.
According to Antoinette Keegan, who survived the fire, but lost her two sisters Mary, 19, and Martina, 16, the families have been left to suffer due to neglect from successive governments. “We’ve had no counselling, we’ve had no help. The government has done nothing but abuse us,” she said at a protest meeting.
The tribunal of inquiry into the inferno found that the nightclub owner had acted with “reckless disregard” for safety. It also found the state to be negligent by failing to ensure that fire regulations were followed, yet nobody has been held to account. The inquiry ruled arson as the “probable cause” but that was never accepted by the families and was later ruled out following a fresh inquiry in 2009.
A compensation scheme set up in 1985, though grounded in good faith, served to protect both the state and the Stardust owners from civil liability as the survivors and victims’ families had to agree not to pursue any further legal action.
As a nation, we have shown a capacity to address past societal failures. We have faced up to clerical abuse; we have recognised the state’s culpability in the mistreatment of young mothers in the Magdaline laundries; we have ensured the right of same-sex partners to marry and we have liberalised the laws on reproductive rights and, just last week, divorce.
The Stardust victims are not just the 48 who died and the 214 injured. The families are victims, too, and continuing to neglect or ignore their pain and suffering shames us all.