‘We want the truth’

THE FAMILIES of the Stardust tragedy victims have called on Justice Minister Michael McDowell to establish a new tribunal of inquiry into how 48 young people died in the 1981 fire.

The chairman of the Chief Fire Officer's Association, Jim Dunphy, has also warned that a disaster like the Stardust tragedy could strike here again.

Among the chief problems highlighted in 1975, 1982 and again in 2002 is the fact that control of the fire services is left to a plethora of local authorities lacking the power and consistency of a central body. With the 25th anniversary next week, the same problems remain.

SIPTU firefighters representative Tony McDonnell said there are still just seven people inspecting fire safety in Dublin.

"How many hotels, housing schemes, theatres and other venues have appeared since then? We didn't even have the Point Theatre then. You have seven people trying to cope with a massive influx of infrastructure," he said.

Bridget McDermott, who lost three of her children Marcella, 16, George, 18, and William, 22 called on Mr McDowell to listen to their calls.

"I just want him to listen to us and help us. I think they owe it to us. Everybody needs justice, especially the dead. I don't think I could go to my grave and meet Willie, Marcella and George and tell them we did not get justice.

"We just want the truth now. At the time, I left it to the tribunal (held in 1981) and I thought we would all get justice and we would all get answers, but we didn't," she said.

"I was shocked at the findings. We were just paid off. It was an insult. We were given £22,500 for our three children and expected to forget about it."

Afterwards, a doctor referred her to a day centre run by a religious order for people with mental illness.

"They put me at a sewing machine making little flowers and a psychiatrist came to me twice and asked me the same questions so I was repeating myself. I felt I was going mad. I couldn't stay."

Bridget and her husband's marriage broke down under the weight of their shared grief.

Gertrude Barrett, whose 17-year-old son Michael died, also wants questions answered.

"He was victim number 38. That's what my Michael was called a number, like an order in a fast food restaurant," she said.

Gertrude was told Michael died of smoke inhalation but she never accepted that conclusion, as he was with two others who survived relatively unscathed. The more evidence that emerged that the fire started in the roof of the building not through arson in the seating area as the tribunal concluded the more she believed Michael was trapped by the collapsing ceiling.

Elizabeth 'Lil' Buckley, who lost her 23-year-old son Jimmy in the Stardust fire, supports the campaign for a fresh inquiry.

"I'm weary and I'm too old. But that doesn't mean I've forgotten. I don't really know if we'll get any more answers this time, but I think it's worth trying. God loves a trier."

Patricia Kennedy, whose 17-year-old daughter Marie died in the fire, also wants an inquiry. Her marriage also broke down. "When I look back at the questions that should have been asked, I just want to get to the bottom of what happened. Basically we want the truth and we want justice, for someone to be made responsible, for someone to take responsibility."

The average age of the dead was 19. In all, 25 men and 23 women died, 214 were injured, 11 badly disfigured or disabled.

A 1981 tribunal chaired by Mr Justice Ronan Keane found after 122 days: "The cause of the fire is not known and may never be known. There is no evidence of an accidental origin and equally no evidence that the fire was started deliberately."

Yet, it added: "The fire was probably caused deliberately, the most likely mechanism being the slashing of some of the seats with a knife and the application of a lighted match or cigarette lighter to the exposed foam, or the ignition of newspapers on or under the seats."

There was "no evidence", yet there was a detailed and firm conclusion, which placed every young person in the Stardust that night under suspicion of arson.

The Stardust's general manager, Eamon Butterly, faced heavy criticisms in the tribunal report. He had, said Mr Justice Keane, misled Dublin Corporation about his fire safety practices, locked or otherwise obstructed exit doors, been negligent in his training and instruction of staff, and failed to co-operate in the early stages of the garda inquiry. He escaped prosecution and secured around £600,000 (€750,000) in compensation for his burnt premises.

The Stardust Relatives Committee fought for, and eventually won, £10.5 million (€13m) in awards to 823 applicants ranging from less than £1,000 (€1,250) to £200,000 (€250,000). No one received as much as the Stardust owners, however.

The Stardust campaign is being fought on two fronts, one aimed at getting inquests reopened and the other at securing a fresh tribunal of inquiry. Some families would simply like to have a death certificate and a grave to visit.

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