British government experts called in to investigate the Stardust nightclub fire were concerned it could become embarrassing if criticisms had to be made of the Irish Government.
Officials at the Fire Research Station (FRS), a British government facility, discussed the importance of any representative they sent to Ireland sticking firmly to technical matters, so as to avoid any awkwardness.
They also stressed they would have to keep the UK home office, department of the environment, and police informed.
An internal memo, dated February 19, 1981, five days after the fire, refers to a phonecall from Dublin Corporation, asking to retain FRS to advise in relation to the fire and the tribunal of inquiry. FRS were pleased to be asked.
“There would, of course, be a recognition of the status of FRS. In principle, I can see no reason why FRS should not undertake,” the memo states, adding a question mark over payment.
But it continues: “It is possible that the results of the enquiry could imply a criticism of the Irish government, but provided the FRS officer restricts himself strictly to giving technical advice, it should not embarrass HM government.”
The official who replies agrees and asks that “the request from Eire should be in writing” and the reply should stress the restrictions on FRS’s involvement and the need to keep UK authorities informed. He said he was “less concerned with repayment”, but that travel and subsistence should be sought.
The documents, held in the British National Archives, also show the close ties between FRS and the other fire experts involved in the tribunal. The memo of February 19 refers to the director of FRS, George Nice, being at a meeting with FIRTO, the Fire Insurers’ Research and Testing Organisation, “who are also involved”.
FRS were subsequently released by Dublin Corporation and were retained by the tribunal, instead. A letter dated March 16, from Mr Nice to tribunal solicitor, Michael Buckley, confirms they are no longer acting for the corporation and were free to begin testing work for the tribunal, at an estimated cost of £20,000.
Mr Nice’s letter refers to “some confusion” around the various expert bodies.
He says FIRTO have now been retained by the gardaí to carry out tests, but they shared the same site as FRS, and Mr Nice said he would be happy to liaise directly with them in connection with the inquiry.
He also refers to Gugan & Associates, the fire consultants retained by Dublin Corporation, and in particular to a Mr Tucker, who had asked to witness FRS’s tests. Mr Nice said he had no objection, as he knew Mr Tucker, who was a former FRS staff member. The letter is marked as copied to FIRTO.
Another FRS internal memo confirms that testing would take place over the next two months and would be filmed, with a view to producing a fire-safety film. A handwritten response notes: “This is very gratifying. Should provide good publicity and, no doubt, an element of cost recovery.”
Antoinette Keegan, of the Justice for the Stardust campaign, said she was not surprised by the documents, which reaffirmed the families’ belief that there was a lack of independent thinking in the examination of the fire.
“We had no independent experts. They all knew each other, they were told where the fire started, and they carried out tests to prove it and it’s those conclusions that have us fighting for the truth for 37 years,” she said.
“I don’t blame them. They were brought into a process that was never independent. We never got to choose our solicitors, our experts, our counsellors. They were all chosen for us. You couldn’t have faith in a process like that.”
Elaborate tests were carried out by FRS, involving reconstructions of the fire and experiments with furnishings and materials, but they were based on the assumption that the fire began in seating.
That led to the tribunal finding of ‘probable arson’, as it proved difficult to set fire to the seats, so tribunal chair, Judge Ronan Keane, relied heavily on the hypothesis that someone had deliberately slashed a seat, exposed the flammable stuffing, and set fire to that.
That finding was officially overturned in 2009.