After a 36-year quest, families hope for truth

The Stardust fire was worst tragedy of its kind to hit the country, writes Michael Clifford.

After a 36-year quest, families hope for truth

There is still dispute over how the fire was started. A tribunal of inquiry concluded that it was attributable to arson. Many of the injured and bereaved families don’t accept that.

The fire was first spotted around 1.40am. Two calls were made from within the nightclub about what was then thought to be a small fire. Within minutes, the flames has escalated, catching most of the 840 patrons inside unawares.

The injured were ferried away to a number of different hospitals including the Mater, Jervis Street, and Dr Steevens’. Forty-four people died in the fire. Within three weeks another four would die from their injuries.

In total, 214 people were left with injuries and 11 others with permanent injuries. Nearly all the casualties were young people between the ages of 18 and 30 from the general Artane and Coolock areas.

The Stardust fire was the worst tragedy of its kind to hit the country. “It is very harrowing for the parents, many of whom live in my own parish, as it were,” Charlie Haughey said as he visited the site in the aftermath of the fire.

Afterwards, it became clear that the fire safety measures in terms of design were completely inadequate.

A special day of mourning was announced for the Tuesday after the fire when many of the victims were buried after a special requiem Mass.

A tribunal of inquiry was set up under the chair of Ronan Keane, who went on to serve as chief justice. The inquiry sat between April and November 1981 and reported the following year.

Its report concluded that the fire had “probably” been started deliberately. The relatives didn’t accept that conclusion.

The inquiry included over 1,600 statements taken by the gardaí and 363 witnesses who gave direct evidence. But the conclusions shocked some of those who had been there on the night and the families of the bereaved.

The judge found that the tribunal “has come to the conclusion that the most probable explanation of the fire is that it was caused deliberately”. He concluded that it probably started in the west alcove after the seats were slashed and set alight.

There were a number of other conclusions that suggested the running of the premises was less than safe. The judge concludes that the practice of keeping emergency exits secured with padlocks until midnight on disco nights was “a recklessly dangerous practice which regularly endangered the lives of over 1,000 people”.

The judge also listed four reasons why “a prompt and efficient evacuation of the building did not take place”.

These were: The rapid spread of fire; a third of the patrons attempted to leave by the main entrance, which was not suitable and did not comply with the draft building regulations; the absence of evacuation procedures and fire drill for the staff; the locked and obstructed condition of other exits.

The report went on: “Had the appropriate precautions been in existence to ensure efficient evacuation on the night of the fire, the injuries sustained would have been unquestionably less and the death toll would almost certainly have been reduced.”

Over the following years, the relatives had to fight long and hard to get compensation for the loss of their loved ones. They were in the High Court for years.

A special Lord Mayor fund was set up to cover the most pressing and immediate costs faced by the dozens of families who had been thrust into a nightmare. Yet through it all the relatives’ sense of grievance continued, largely because it appeared that once the headlines died down, the body politic moved on, and the result of the inquiry did not answer their many questions.

In 1983, the Butterly family, which owned the nightclub, brought a claim through some of their companies against Dublin corporation for IR£3m.

They won the case in the circuit court where the judge said he was satisfied that the fire was started deliberately. He awarded the company £581,000 in damages.

The leaseholder of the nightclub, Eamon Butterly, never accepted responsibility for what happened. Neither did he nor anybody acting on his behalf apologise to the bereaved or injured.

A compensation scheme was set up for the bereaved and survivors which awarded a total of £10m. The largest awards went to some of the survivors who had been injured.

Christine Keegan, who lost two daughters in the fire, was awarded just £7,500 for each of them. Christine’s other daughter, Antoinette, has been one of the leading campaigners for the families over the last 30 years.

In 1985, little progress had been made in civil actions against the owner of Stardust by the victims. In August that year, Christy Moore launched his Ordinary Man album, which included a song, ‘They Never Came Home’.

This was about the sense of injustice felt by the bereaved and injured. He got the title from hearing one mother describe how she had seen off her daughter and friends that night, not realising that was the last she would see of them.

Moore’s song was released on July 29. Four days later his record company, WEA Records, received a legal missive from the owner of the Stardust. It claimed that the song was such that it was in contempt of court in relation to the ongoing High Court actions.

The record company had to protect itself so it asked shops not to stock the record for the time being and radio stations not to play it. Then it went to the High Court for an order.

That order didn’t go in Christy’s favour. The judge ruled that the song was in contempt of court, saying that it was a “real and serious threat” to a fair trial in the upcoming actions.

The line of the song that was found to offend the prospects of justice was one which referred to the condition of the exits, which had also been mentioned in the tribunal report three years earlier.

In 2006, 25 years after the disaster, RTÉ broadcast a docudrama which generated some controversy, particularly among the bereaved families. The same month that that was broadcast, RTÉ’s Prime Time programme did an investigation which cast doubts on the verdict of the original tribunal.

In the programme, witnesses who had been outside on the night said they had seen fire coming out of the floor eight minutes before those inside had detected anything.

There was also new evidence produced about the building’s contents and layout and other details which did not appear to have featured in any great prominence in the original inquiry.

As a result of a campaign by the families, a new inquiry was established in 2008 and chaired by senior counsel John Gallagher. He stepped down when it emerged that he had represented parties at the original tribunal.

A photo taken on February 14, 1981, of the scene after the Stardust fire; top: Families of the victims at the Dáil this week: Maurice Frazer, who lost his sister Thelma; Christine Keegan and her daughter Antoinette (Christine lost her daughters Martina, 16, and Mary,19); Eugene Kelly, who lost his brother Robert; Patricia Kennedy who lost her daughter Mary (Maire) Kennedy, who was 17; Bridget McDermott with daughter Louise McDermott (Bridget lost sons William, 22, George, 18, and a daughter, Marcella, 16).
A photo taken on February 14, 1981, of the scene after the Stardust fire; top: Families of the victims at the Dáil this week: Maurice Frazer, who lost his sister Thelma; Christine Keegan and her daughter Antoinette (Christine lost her daughters Martina, 16, and Mary,19); Eugene Kelly, who lost his brother Robert; Patricia Kennedy who lost her daughter Mary (Maire) Kennedy, who was 17; Bridget McDermott with daughter Louise McDermott (Bridget lost sons William, 22, George, 18, and a daughter, Marcella, 16).

His replacement, Paul Coffey, did a scoping inquiry and reported to the government in late 2008 that in his opinion the original finding of arson was wrong and that the public record should be corrected.

While the families were satisfied with that element, the Coffey report also stated that “a new inquiry is necessary if it is the only way of placing on the public record a finding that is based on evidence”.

But that statement appeared in a draft report and the final report stated that the cause of the fire could not be established. Coffey stated that due to the passage of time it would not be in the public interest for a new statutory inquiry to be established. The public record was corrected to reflect that there was no evidence that the fire was started deliberately.

Over the last 18 months a researcher for the families, Geraldine Foy, has pored over the transcripts of the Keane tribunal, which were released to her in 2008. She has also gone though all other reports and evidence.

She believes she has found testimony from witnesses inside and outside the Stardust which all point to the fire having been started not where the tribunal concluded it had but in the roof space.

Some of the witness statements were not included in the final tribunal report and Ms Foy believes that these were crucial and should have been in it.

In December last year, the relatives withdrew from engagement with the department of justice in frustration at the progress of things.

Matters have come to a head in the last few days.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said that if new evidence about the cause of the fire is uncovered there should be a commission of investigation. “I don’t see any difficulty in having the government meeting with the family,” he said in the Dáil on Wednesday.

“I don’t know the new evidence. I am quite willing to have a new investigation but that evidence has to be looked at.

“If that evidence shows that there should be a commission of investigation then there should be one.”

On Wednesday, the Government came to a compromise. Finian McGrath, the junior health minister, was supporting the relatives’ request for a full commissioner of investigation.

But the Government has agreed now to hold a full commission if there is new evidence as adjudicated by an independent person. The families will have a say in who is appointed, and they favour a retired judge with criminal court experience.

On Wednesday, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald related what was at stake for the families.

“Across the country, thousands of people, young and indeed not so young, went out on a Friday night, to dance, to celebrate, to enjoy themselves. They said goodbye to their loved ones; told them they would see them later; made plans for the following day,” she said.

“They did and said all the things that we do in such routine circumstances. Every parent worries when their child, whatever age, is heading out for the night. We tell them to mind themselves, to be careful. But we never think something like this could happen.

“Many young people lost their lives. Many more were seriously injured and live with those scars to this day; both physical and psychological.”

The expectation is that the new independent person will be appointed in the coming weeks. The families are of the opinion that the scoping inquiry which he or she will conduct can be completed in a matter of a few months.

After that, a decision will be made. It now looks like the families will have a final outcome to their 36-year quest to locate the truth of what happened on that tragic night.

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