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'a weight gone' Stardust campaigner Antoinette Keegan hails inquest ruling

Families “overwhelmed” after Coroner refused an attempt by the club’s former manager to exclude unlawful killing as a possible verdict

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Antoinette Keegan with Former journalist Charlie Bird at the Candlelit vigil for the 41st anniversary of the Stardust fire pictured at former nightclub in Artane

Antoinette Keegan with Former journalist Charlie Bird at the Candlelit vigil for the 41st anniversary of the Stardust fire pictured at former nightclub in Artane

Antoinette Keegan with Former journalist Charlie Bird at the Candlelit vigil for the 41st anniversary of the Stardust fire pictured at former nightclub in Artane

The families of the 48 people killed in the Stardust nightclub fire are “overwhelmed in an absolutely brilliant way” after Dublin City Coroner Dr Myra Cullinane refused an attempt by the club’s former manager to exclude unlawful killing as a possible verdict in the upcoming inquest.

It’s the best news I’ve had in 41 years,” Antoinette Keegan, chairperson of the Stardust Victims Committee, told Independent.ie this evening.

“A weight has gone off my shoulders,” said Ms Keegan, a survivor of the blaze that broke out in the nightclub on Valentine’s Day, 1981 that killed her two sisters Mary and Martina.

Ms Keegan said she has been inundated with calls and texts from the victims’ families this evening in which they all expressed their relief and gratitude for today's ruling.

“There’s a lot of anxiety and trauma taken off now.

“Families are overwhelmed to say the least in an absolutely brilliant way. We were all concerned about this but we have a voice for them now,” she said of the upcoming inquest.

“We thank the coroner, she’s doing the right thing, the law is the law.”

Former Stardust manager Eamon Butterly had sought an application to have the possible verdict of unlawful killing ruled out before the inquests get underway.

His legal team had argued he could face allegations of criminal or civil liability if an unlawful killing verdict is reached by the jury.

But in her ruling issued on Wednesday, Dr Cullinane said “to rule out any verdict prior to the hearing of any evidence would be manifestly to invert the prescribed process”.

She ruled that it was only after all of the evidence is heard in the inquest that any findings can made.

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She found: “It is not appropriate for a coroner to rule out any verdict, on the grounds that it is not possible to know definitively what evidence may be called or what findings may be made on foot of that evidence.

“It is only after this evidence has been heard that an inquest…will ‘make findings’ and consider the appropriate verdicts arising from the evidence that has been heard.

“It is not within my power as a coroner to investigate allegations of civil or criminal wrongdoing, although it is both my power and my duty to investigate acts or omissions which might – in other settings – be consistent with such allegations.”

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Antoinette Keegan with former journalist Charlie Bird at the candlelit vigil for the 41st anniversary of the Stardust

Antoinette Keegan with former journalist Charlie Bird at the candlelit vigil for the 41st anniversary of the Stardust

Antoinette Keegan with former journalist Charlie Bird at the candlelit vigil for the 41st anniversary of the Stardust

Inquests could, and did, “closely investigate acts and omissions of any persons that may have caused or contributed to the deaths in question without taking the further step of ascribing blame to any person”, Dr Cullinane said.

"All potential verdicts should be left available to the jury, in case evidence is called that might lead to such a verdict.

"I do not believe that it is either necessary or appropriate in these circumstances to take the further step of saying that no verdict of unlawful killing is available.

"Directions will be given to the jury at the opening of the inquests, at the closing before they retire to consider their verdict, and possibly at other points,” she said.

Meanwhile, the families of the victims are awaiting the inquest which will be held in the Pillar Room, of the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin.

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Damage at the Stardust Disco in Dublin (Tony Harris/PA)

Damage at the Stardust Disco in Dublin (Tony Harris/PA)

Damage at the Stardust Disco in Dublin (Tony Harris/PA)

No date has been set although a number of preliminary hearings have been scheduled for early March, Ms Keegan said.

The inquest follows the findings of a Tribunal of Inquiry held in November 1981 by Mr Justice Ronan Keane which concluded the probable cause of the fire that engulfed the nightclub in Artane, north Dublin, was arson.

The families have always disputed the verdict which was set aside in 2009 and they have continued to campaign for an investigation into the tragedy ever since.

Ms Keegan’s mother Christine Keegan, who died at the age of 85 in 2020, spent the last decades of her life fighting for a fresh inquiry into the fire that not only claimed the lives of her two daughters, but killed 46 others and injured hundreds of others.

In 2019, former Attorney General Séamus Woulfe ordered a fresh inquest into the deaths but the case has yet to proceed due to a number of delays – including a dispute as to whether the families were entitled to legal aid.

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