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Q&A: Will the upcoming Stardust fire inquests finally bring families justice after 40 years?

Sisters Lorraine (left) and Antionette Keegan (right) with their cousin Pauline Braymer holding photos of Stardust victims Martina and Mary Keegan, as well as their parents Chrissie and John Keegan who have both since passed away. Pic: Frank McGrath

Sisters Lorraine (left) and Antionette Keegan (right) with their cousin Pauline Braymer holding photos of Stardust victims Martina and Mary Keegan, as well as their parents Chrissie and John Keegan who have both since passed away. Pic: Frank McGrath

Andrew Lynch

So why are the Stardust fire campaigners hopeful that 2022 will be the year they finally get justice?

Because over four decades since the biggest disaster independent Ireland has ever known, new inquests into the 48 deaths are due to be held in the coming months. The Dublin District Coroner’s Court is promising to give victims’ families the thorough, professional investigation that they have demanded for so long.

However, rows over funding and locations are awakening an old fear – that Ireland’s political and legal establishments don’t really care about the Stardust tragedy because it happened on the “wrong” side of town.

What exactly happened on that terrible St Valentine’s night in 1981?

The Stardust nightclub was a popular venue in Artane, owned by a family called Butterly. Over 800 people were there on February 14 to enjoy a disco dancing competition.

Fire broke out, the lights failed and panic ensued as patrons trying to escape discovered that a number of emergency doors were chained or padlocked.

“It was like being in hell,” says the long-term campaigner Antoinette Keegan, who lost her two sisters Mary (19) and Martina (16).

Afterwards, the devastation was so horrific that some bodies could only be identified by their clothing or jewellery. The emotional trauma caused to Artane and its surrounding areas would be impossible to measure.

What will the new inquests be trying to find out?

The Stardust scandal has always boiled down to two key questions – how did the fire begin and how much responsibility do the nightclub’s owners bear?

The aftermath of the Stardust nightclub fire on St Valentine's night, 1981

The aftermath of the Stardust nightclub fire on St Valentine's night, 1981

A 1981 tribunal chaired by Justice Ronan Keane was the first attempt to supply answers. Mr Keane concluded that the blaze had probably been started deliberately by somebody putting a cigarette against a slashed seat cover.

He also accused the Stardust’s management of acting “with a reckless disregard for safety”, but no criminal charges resulted. As a result, the Butterlys were able to sue Dublin Corporation and win damages of IR£580,000 (worth roughly €1.5m today).

In stark contrast, most victims’ families got just a few thousand each from a government compensation scheme – and only on condition that they dropped their own civil cases against the council.

Worst of all, Stardust relatives felt that their entire community had been unfairly stigmatised. As Phyllis McHugh (whose 17-year-old daughter Caroline died) put it, “Calling those children arsonists – that was the worst thing they ever did to us.”

But the families weren’t prepared to walk away?

No. The Stardust Victims Committee was formed and began lobbying for a new inquiry.

It won a major victory in 2009, when a sit-in at Government Buildings led to an independent review by barrister Paul Coffey. He decided that the Keane Tribunal’s verdict of arson had been unjustified and this was officially struck from the public record in Dáil Éireann.

The Committee, however, still wanted more. Campaigners proved their public support by travelling around Ireland and collecting 48,000 signed postcards .

Finally, in 2019 the then Attorney General Seamus Woulfe approved their call for fresh inquests – declaring that there had been “an insufficiency of inquiry as to how the deaths occurred”.

What are the disputes that have already dogged this new investigation?

The first was over money. Although Budget 2021 allocated €8.2m to the inquests, some families did not qualify for free legal aid because their incomes were over the threshold.

After solicitor Darragh Mackin threatened a judicial review based on the European Convention of Human Rights, a deal was struck.

Acting Justice Minister Heather Humphreys signed a new regulation last May that gave funding to all families, while lawyers reduced their fees by between 37pc and 52pc.

Almost immediately, however, another argument broke out over where the inquests should take place. Dublin Castle was the original plan, which campaigners supported .

Then Covid-19 arrived and the Department of Justice rented a hall at the RDS in Ballsbridge instead, saying it was more suitable for social distancing.

Unfortunately, Covid also delayed proceedings throughout 2021 and the one-year lease on this venue will expire after February 22.

Campaigners urged Justice Minister Helen McEntee to give them some peace of mind by confirming a new location before Christmas. That didn’t happen.

When the inquests finally do get under way, what will be the format?

To start, there will be “pen portraits” of all 48 victims. This involves relatives talking about their loved ones in human terms, an exercise designed to give them back some dignity.

After that, Dublin District Coroner Dr Myra Cullinane has suggested dividing the hearings into three modules.

The first would involve eye-witness testimony, the second would focus on Dublin Fire Brigade’s response and An Garda Siochana’s investigation, while the third would feature “expert evidence”.

It’s important to note that as with all inquests, this process is not about apportioning blame – just establishing facts.

After almost 41 years, is there any real chance of discovering the full truth?

Campaigners believe there is. They point to the example of Hillsborough, where 97 football fans were crushed to death at an FA Cup semi-final in 1989. It was fresh inquests that finally nailed the lie of drunken Liverpool yobs being responsible and led to criminal charges against others – 27 years later.

In particular, the Stardust Victims Committee hopes that modern forensic techniques or new witnesses can settle one crucial issue. Did the fire start in a side alcove (as Justice Keane suggested) or in the roof area where a storeroom contained flammable cleaning products (which might put the spotlight back on management)?

Finally, will this be seen as Official Ireland’s last chance to give everyone affected by the Stardust disaster the respect they deserve?

Yes. Rightly or wrongly, there has always been a perception that the Stardust families received shoddy treatment due to their social class.

“If this fire had been on the south side of Dublin,” former RTÉ reporter Charlie Bird declared in 2019, “the answer would have been there by now.”

In 2022, the State can finally lay those Stardust ghosts to rest by following Nelson Mandela’s advice: “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”

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