“Martina Elaine Keegan died on the 14 February 1981 from extensive burns and carbon monoxide poisoning, received when fire broke out at the Stardust Club, Kilmore Rd Artane, Dublin, on that date.”
That is all the official record says about the death of 16-year-old Martina, whose inquest, along with that of her 19-year-old sister Mary, was one of 15 held on one day in the Dublin Coroner’s Court in March 1982.
In all, the court spent just four days hearing the cases of the 48 people killed in the fire.
Witness testimony was cursory, medical evidence brief and questions not encouraged. No verdicts were recorded other than “in accordance with the medical evidence”.
It was another week of pain after a year of agony for the Stardust families and the emphasis seemed to be on ending that part of the process as quickly as possible.
But, in doing so, families of 42 of the deceased headed by Martina and Mary’s sister, Antoinette, argue that they were denied answers, their loved ones were denied justice and the injured, the survivors and the public at large were denied the reassurances and transparency that was their right given the scale of the disaster and the anxieties it unleashed.
In a submission to Attorney General Seamus Wolfe this week, the families have asked him to order fresh inquests. He has the power to do so under Section 24 of the Coroners Act 1962. It is a rarely invoked power and even less often successful as it has faced challenges in the courts.
But the Stardust families are adamant the Coroner’s Court is the forum that can finally establish what happened the night their loved ones died and 48,000 people signed postcards in recent months to say they agree. New inquests established the truth about Hillsborough and they are helping to address the horrors of Ballymurphy and Birmingham, they point out.
In their submission, they cite the Coroners Act itself which states the task of an inquest is: “ascertaining the identity of the person...and how, when, and where the death occurred”.
Barrister and former coroner Dr Brian Farrell, the country’s leading authority on the court, has written in his guide for coroners: “‘How” is interpreted as including not only the cause of death but also the circumstances pertaining to death... The medical cause of death should not be equated with ‘how’ death occurred.” On that basis, the Stardust inquests fell well short of what was required.
Answering the question of “how” the 48 died means looking at all the circumstances surrounding their deaths. That was the job of the 1981 Keane Tribunal but it has been discredited for concluding the cause was probably arson while also stating there was no evidence for such a finding.
That conclusion was removed from the public record in 2009 following the Coffey Review but the review was not allowed to carry out fresh investigations and made no findings on the actual cause.
The McCartan review in 2017 was set up to establish if there was fresh evidence to warrant a full new inquiry — as the families have long argued there is — but it could not carry out any investigations either and its assessment of the families’ case was extremely negative.
Human rights lawyer Darragh Mackin, now acting for the families, points out that they had no funding for legal advice or professional researchers and says McCartan’s criticism “was inappropriate and undermined the families’ confidence in his approach”.
Neither the Coffey nor McCartan exercises could remedy the insufficiency of the original inquests, the submission states, thus there remains “a failure by the State to conduct full and effective investigations which were capable of revealing the truth” — a breach of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Those grounds, in addition to the incomplete inquests plus the public interest argument, should be sufficient to warrant new inquests, the families argue.
But they also have fresh evidence. A witness made a 999 call earlier than was recorded by Keane, reporting flames on the roof that were dismissed by Keane, putting the origin of the fire in the roof space or the adjacent storeroom, not in the alcove where, Keane proposed, somebody slashed the seating, exposed the stuffing and set fire to it.
Another witness details how packed the storeroom was with combustible materials — far more than Keane recorded. Others refer to faulty electrics running close to the stores. Others put to rest some of the flawed floorplan details that led Keane to dismiss the storeroom fire theory on the mistaken belief that it would have been spotted by revellers when it could have smouldered and burned for some time unseen.
The implications of making findings to that effect would be significant — they could lead to civil or criminal proceedings. However, the cost of not proceeding is also significant.
“The unanswered questions prolong their [the families’] suffering, and are a source of profound public disquiet,” it states.
For those fearing a protracted, expensive exercise, the families argue that fresh inquests would be “manageable” as much of the evidence is uncontroversial and could be taken as read. More manageable, they say, than living 38 years without truth.