So why do Stardust Fire campaigners hope that 2022 will be the year they finally get justice?
In more than four decades since the biggest disaster known to independent Ireland, new investigation in 48 deaths To be held in the coming months. The Dublin District Coroner’s Court is promising the families of the victims the full professional investigation they have demanded for so long.
However, rows over funding and locations are sparking an old fear – that Ireland’s political and legal establishment doesn’t really care about the Stardust tragedy because it happened on the “wrong” side of the city.
What really happened on that terrible St. Valentine’s night in 1981?
Stardust Nightclub was a popular venue in Artane, owned by a family named Butterley. More than 800 people were there to enjoy a disco dance competition on 14 February.
A fire broke out, lights failed and panic spread as patrons trying to escape discovered that many emergency doors were chained or padlocked.
“It was like being in hell,” says longtime campaigner Antoinette Keegan, who lost her two sisters, Marie (19) and Martina (16).
Later, the devastation was so severe that some bodies could be identified only by their clothing or jewelry. It would be impossible to measure the emotional trauma that has occurred in Arten and its surrounding areas.
What will the new inquiry be trying to find out?
The Stardust scandal always boils down to two key questions – how did the fire start and how much responsibility do the nightclub owners hold?
A 1981 court headed by Justice Ronan Keane was the first attempt to respond. Mr Keane concluded that the fire was probably started by someone intentionally putting a cigarette against a cracked seat cover.
He also accused Stardust’s management of “reckless disregard for security”, but no criminal charges turned up. As a result, Butterley was able to sue Dublin Corporation and win damages of IR £580,000 (worth approximately €1.5m today).
Quite the contrary, the families of most of the victims received only a few thousand from the government compensation scheme – and only on condition that they drop their own civil cases against the council.
Worst of all, Stardust’s relatives felt that their entire community was unfairly stigmatized. As Phyllis McHugh (whose 17-year-old daughter Caroline died) put it, “To call those kids arson – it was the worst thing they ever did to us.”
But the family was not ready to move?
No, the Stardust Victims Committee was formed and began lobbying for a new investigation.
It scored a major victory in 2009, when barrister Paul Coffey conducted an independent review of the siting in government buildings. They decided that the Keane Tribunal’s decision of arson was unfair and it was officially removed from the public record in Del ireann.
However, the committee still wanted more. Campaigners proved their public support by traveling around Ireland and collecting 48,000 signed postcards,
Finally, in 2019 then-Attorney General Seamus Woolf approved his call for a fresh investigation – declaring that there was an “inadequacy of the investigation into how the deaths occurred”.
What are the controversies that are already embroiled in this new investigation?
The first money had run out. Although Budget 2021 allocated €8.2m for enquiries, some families were not eligible for free legal aid because their income exceeded the limit.
After Solicitor Darragh Mackin threatened judicial review on the grounds of the European Human Rights Convention, a deal was struck.
Acting Justice Minister Heather Humphries signed a new regulation last May that gave funding to all families, while lawyers reduced their fees to between 37 pc and 52 pc.
However, almost immediately, another argument arose as to where the investigation should take place. Dublin Castle was the original plan, which was supported by campaigners.,
Then came Covid-19 and the Justice Department instead rented a hall at the RDS in Ballsbridge, saying it was more suitable for social distancing.
Unfortunately, COVID delayed proceedings throughout 2021 and the one-year lease at the site will expire after February 22.
Campaigners urged Justice Minister Helen McEnty to give them peace of mind by confirming a new location before Christmas. It did not happen.
When the inquiry is finally underway, what will be the format?
To start, there will be “pen portraits” of all 48 victims. This involves asking relatives to talk about their loved ones in human terms, a practice designed to give them some respect back.
After that, Dublin District Coroner Dr Myra Cullinane suggests splitting the hearing into three modules.
The first will include eyewitnesses, the second will focus on the Dublin Fire Brigade’s response and investigation into the En Garda Siochana, while the third will contain “expert evidence”.
It is important to note that like all inquiries, this process is not about sharing the blame – just establishing the facts.
After almost 41 years, is there any real possibility of discovering the Absolute Truth?
Preachers believe that there is. They point to the example of Hillsborough, where 97 football fans were crushed to death in the 1989 FA Cup semi-final. It was this fresh inquiry that ultimately led to the lie of the intoxicated Liverpool Yobes being blamed and criminal charges against the others – 27 years later.
In particular, the Stardust Victims Committee is hopeful that modern forensic techniques or new witnesses may settle an important issue. Did the fire start in a side alcove (as Justice Keane suggested) or in a roof area where there were flammable cleaning products in a storeroom (which could put the spotlight back on management)?
Finally, will this be considered as Official Ireland’s last chance to give all those affected by the Stardust disaster the respect they deserve?
And it is. Right or wrong, there has always been a belief that Stardust families were treated poorly because of their social class.
“If this fire were on the south side of Dublin,” declared former RTE reporter Charlie Bird In 2019, “the answer will be Been there so far.”
In 2022, the state may finally put those stardust ghosts to rest by following Nelson Mandela’s advice: “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”