The Government must step up the enforcement of fire safety in pubs and nightclubs to safeguard the public, the head of the Stardust inquiry warned today.
Former Chief Justice Ronan Keane said that without an adequate machinery of enforcement, the lives of people would continue to be at ’dangerously at risk’.
“It is to be hoped that central government will play its part by making adequate resources available to fire authorities so as to ensure that the powers of enforcement vested in them can be meaningfully exercised. Otherwise the terrible lessons of the past will not have been learned,” he said.
Mr Justice Keane was speaking at the annual conference of the Chief Fire Officers Association on the 25th anniversary of the Stardust disaster.
He headed the inquiry into the fire at the Dublin nightclub, which led to the death of 48 young people and an overhaul of the outdated fire safety legislation.
He warned that local authorities could be sued for damages if they were negligent in their duty to inspects pubs and nightclubs and could be liable if they issued fire certificates to buildings which had no proper smoke alarms and people were subsequently injured in a fire there.
“Similarly, if in a place to which the public are admitted such as a theatre or a cinema a fire takes place and people are killed or injured, the fire authority could be liable in damages where proper means of escape were not available and the authority had either not carried out any inspection or the inspection was inadequate.”
Mr Keane pointed out that in the aftermath of the Stardust fire relatives of the victims had sued Dublin Corporation but this action had been settled when they took part in a state sponsored scheme of ’no fault’ compensation.
According to the Department of the Environment, around 5,000 fire safety inspections were carried out on 3,000 premises in 2004. However, only 2,018 of these were carried out by fire safety officers with the remainder being done by the Gardai.
Fire officers privately say they are especially concerned that the number of fire safety officers for the Dublin region – seven – has not increased for the last two decades.
Although Mr Keane said he did not know of any fire safety enforcement problems, he said his impression from fire officers was that all was not well in this particular area.
He said that although there was now a comprehensive system of building safety controls and wide-ranging powers for fire officers to serve closure orders on dangerous premises, the effective use of these powers was another thing.
“I have no doubt through long and sad experience that our legislators and ministers have a depressing tendency to regard the bringing of new laws onto the statute book designed to combat various social evils as disposing of them finally: whether the laws effectively remain a dead letter because no serious attempt is made to enforce them.”
The families of the Stardust victims have called for a new tribunal of inquiry to be set up, but Mr Justice Keane declined to answer questions after his address.
Mr Justice Keane was educated in Blackrock College, UCD and the King’s Inns and was called to the Bar in 1954. After being made a High Court judge in 1979, he was promoted to the Supreme Court in 1996 and then to the position of Chief Justice in 2000. He served until 2004 when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 72.