FG senator to represent gardaí at Stardust inquest

Investigation into the 1981 deaths of 48 young people in nightclub fire expected to be longest-running in the history of the State.
FG senator to represent gardaí at Stardust inquest

Fine Gael senator Barry Ward inside the chamber at the Convention Centre for the first sitting of the 26th Seanad Éireann. Picture: Maxwells

Fine Gael senator Barry Ward will be representing An Garda Síochána in the upcoming Stardust fire inquest.

The junior counsel, who also sits on the Seanad's industrial and commercial panel, was appointed by the force a number of months ago.

Most barristers are appointed by the "cab rank rule" meaning a barrister must take a case that is within their expertise, provided they are free to do so, with only limited scope to refuse.

Joining Mr Ward in the inquest is Fianna Fáil councillor for Donaghmede Tom Brabazon, who will represent one of the families involved.

The pair join a number of legal teams involved in what is expected to be the longest-running inquest in the history of the State.

Some 48 young people died when the popular nightclub in Artane, Dublin, was destroyed in a fire on Valentine’s Day in 1981. 

Last September, the Attorney General ordered fresh inquests into the deaths, with full proceedings due to start in January.

Investigations into the fire showed that a number of escape routes from the dance hall were blocked as emergency doors were locked by chains. 

Concerns have also been raised about the investigation of the scene, which allowed politicians and media to walk through the building just hours later.

Despite findings of safety breaches, there were no prosecutions over the incident.

Along with Dublin City Council and the Fire Service's senior counsel, most of the families are represented by Darragh Mackin of Phoenix Law in Belfast, with one represented by Mr Brabazon. 

Building owner Eamon Butterly, who will appear as a witness, has also requested representation. Legal sources say this is considered "unusual" for a witness in an inquest.

An Garda Síochána is expected to play only a minor role in the inquest hearings compared to other emergency services and eyewitnesses, and it is expected surviving gardaí who were there on the night will be summoned to give evidence about their experience upon arriving at the scene of the fire, and witness statements they took.

If the inquest starts on time, it is expected it could run until August 2021, and it is yet to decide on how many days a week it will take place.

Due to the unprecedented size of the inquest and the number of witnesses involved, it was hoped that Dublin Castle would be used in order to accommodate all those involved.

However, due to the Cabinet being forced to used Dublin Castle for their own meetings in line with Covid-19 restrictions, the inquest has now been moved to Dublin's RDS.

A scheduled hearing for December 16, is due to hear from counsel for the families of victims, in which they plan to raise an issue on whether coroner's inquest is broad enough. Another hearing will be held on January 20, which will deal with the full scope of the inquest.

Coroners are not entitled to find fault, criminal or civil, but an amendment to the Coroner's Act in 2019 inserted a new section that can enquire into circumstances around the death. However, Dublin City coroner Myra Cullinane has said that she feels that this restricts her to things that are proximate to cause of death.

The coroner also has a legal team — a senior and two junior counsel — advising her.

Families often choose not to have legal representation at inquests, however, when there is controversy or a "cover-up", as the families' counsel described it in the first hearing, it is not unexpected.

In 2010, Mr Brabazon objected to a planning application to have a private member's club built on the site of the blaze.

In his letter, Mr Brabazon said it was "most insensitive" to try to "position a private members club at this location".

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