Tuesday, 3 February 2009
Dáil Eireann Debate
The circumstances of the tragedy at the Stardust will no doubt be recounted by many of those who speak this evening and the brutal facts are known to us all. Nevertheless, it is only right that I begin by recording them, out of respect for all affected and in recognition of the magnitude of the tragedy.
On the evening of 13 February 1981, of the tens of thousands of young people who went out to enjoy themselves across the country, several hundred attended a disco at the Stardust ballroom in Artane, Dublin. Forty-eight of those young people never came home, 148 were seriously injured and all were caught up in what was undoubtedly one of the most horrific events of recent history. The reaction throughout society was one of immediate and overwhelming shock, sympathy and outrage. Compelled by the same feelings, the then Government moved quickly to establish a tribunal of inquiry with extensive terms of reference to inquire into the circumstances of the fire, as well as the measures to prevent and deal with it.
The inquiry, carried out by a former Chief Justice, was a substantial and extensive examination. It sat for 122 days and heard evidence from 363 witnesses, 161 of whom were present in the building on the night of the fire. Its findings as to the adequacy of the fire safety measures in place were damning, as were its conclusions concerning the means of escape. The locking and chaining of doors intended for fire escape are recalled by everyone to this day.
The tribunal was also highly critical of the emergency response. Notwithstanding the dedication and bravery of the individual officers, it found the management systems, equipment and training of the fire service were lacking. It also found serious shortcomings in the initial investigation by the Garda, the Forensic Science Laboratory and in the overall regulatory environment.
The tribunal did not simply identify these inadequacies, it went on to chart a programme for modernising the fire prevention and protection regime in the State. There has been a significant long-term impact on fire safety as a result of action taken on foot of these recommendations. A new legislative framework was put in place under the Fire Services Acts 1981 and 2003. This fixes the person in control of a building with a statutory responsibility to take precautions to prevent the outbreak of fire and, in the event of fire, to ensure the safety of persons on the premises. Locking of doors and the blocking of escape routes are specific offences under regulations made under the 1981 Act. Powers of inspection, enforcement and prosecution have all been strengthened. At the same time, substantial investment in fire service infrastructure, communications, equipment, staffing and training have all transformed the service from what it was in 1981. It should not have taken this tragedy to bring forward these recommendations and provide focus for their implementation, but these are nevertheless part of the legacy of Stardust.
There was, however, undoubtedly dissatisfaction from many of the victims with the outcome of the tribunal in so far as the identification of arson as a possible cause was concerned. In recent years the Stardust victims’ committee has urged the Government to reopen the inquiry. Discussions between officials from my Department and representatives of the families led in 2004 to the presentation of a submission on behalf of the Stardust victims’ committee, which examined a range of issues relating to the fire and its investigation. This submission was carefully examined but the advice received was that it did not amount to new evidence such that the original inquiry should be reopened.
Communication channels were maintained with the committee and at all times it was made clear that any further submission it or the representatives wished to make would be carefully examined. This is turn led to the submission of the document, Nothing but the Truth, a far more extensive submission than that earlier presented. Whereas the advice remained that it did not contain new evidence, in deference to the strength of concerns expressed by the families, the Government agreed that it would appoint an independent person to examine the process.
Every facility was made available to the families in agreeing the terms of reference for this examination and in providing funding to assist them in meeting the legal and technical expert costs of participating in the process. That report had been received and considered by Government and was put into the public domain on Friday, 23 January. Rather than attempt to summarise all of its detailed deliberations, I will address its salient contents, particularly in so far as they relate to the motion laid before the House.
Mr. Coffey concludes that the finding of probable arson was on its face a mere hypothetical finding only. He recommends that the Government should consider whether it can correct the public record by placing on the record of the Dáil and Seanad an acknowledgement of the original tribunal’s finding that there is no evidence that the fire was started deliberately and that the cause of the fire is unknown. The primary purpose of this motion is to acknowledge the original tribunal’s findings concerning the absence of evidence and to put this on the public record as recommended by Mr. Coffey.
The Government wishes to acknowledge that as a matter of fact the actual cause of the catastrophic fire at the Stardust on 14 February 1981 is unknown. None of the victims of the Stardust disaster or the persons present at the Stardust on the night of the fire can be held responsible for the fire. We simply cannot say how the fire was caused and nobody present on the night can be held responsible for its cause.
Mr. Coffey has further considered the case made by the committee for a new inquiry. His conclusion is that the committee has not identified any new or available evidence capable of establishing the cause of the fire. He states that whereas it could be argued that a further inquiry would at least establish whether the fire began in the west alcove or in the roof space, it seems to him that at a remove of nearly three decades from the date of the fire and in the absence of any identified evidence which can establish the cause of the fire wheresoever it arose, the public interest would not be served in establishing a further inquiry solely for that purpose.
He also considers whether a case can be made for a further inquiry to assess the probable cause of the fire but concludes that in the absence of any identified evidence capable of establishing the cause of the fire, such an inquiry can only at best produce a hypothetical finding neither capable of proof nor disproof and therefore of no obvious or any forensic value. The Government accepts the view of Mr. Coffey that to establish a new tribunal to investigate the cause of the fire in the absence of any identified evidence which could establish the case of the fire would not be in the public interest. It would simply not have a realistic prospect of coming to any definitive conclusions concerning the cause of the fire and would not materially advance our knowledge, or that of the families, as to its factual cause.
Rather than pursuing such an avenue, the Government is more concerned at making progress on the discretionary recommendation made by Mr. Coffey. The intention is that a committee will be established to monitor the progress of the victims and ensure any outstanding necessary counselling and medical treatment are afforded to the survivors and the bereaved. The practical arrangements for this will be discussed with the families and their representatives.
Mr. Coffey’s report calls attention to criticism of the State’s response at the time to meeting the needs of the survivors and bereaved in the aftermath of the disaster. Just as the technical and operational dimensions of fire prevention have changed dramatically since the Stardust fire, so too has our understanding of how to respond to the human needs and impact of a major accident or emergency.
Our response in recent times to meet the needs of the families of the five unidentified Stardust victims underscores that change in awareness. A process was put in place in conjunction with the families in question which led to the identification of their relatives. All of the relevant State agencies provided their full support throughout that process and met all the costs arising. A counselling facility was made available and assistance was provided with private funeral arrangements.
A similar spirit will inform the arrangements for the committee the Government is to establish so as to monitor the medical and counselling needs. I will not pretend to know what the impact of Mr. Coffey’s findings and this motion will be on individual victims or their families. Members of the committee have come here this evening to witness this motion and I hope this may provide some resolution.
None of us can put ourselves in the places of the bereaved or presume to know how they might feel, but some have responded to indicate that the findings have brought some small amount of closure. I hope that is the case. It goes without saying that our words are of little consequence against the enormity of the loss but, on behalf of the Government, I wish to express our deep and continuing sympathy at the impact of this tragedy.
Deputy Terence Flanagan: I stand today to speak regarding the correction of the Dáil record relating to the cause of the Stardust fire. The Dáil record will now read that there is no evidence that the Stardust fire was started deliberately and that the cause of the fire is unknown.
I welcome all the members of the Stardust victims’ committee here today to witness the Dáil record being corrected. I and all members of the Fine Gael Party, led by Deputy Enda Kenny, who took a personal interest in the case and did all he could, wish to commend the work undertaken by the Stardust victims’ committee in their fight for justice for the 48 victims of the Stardust tragedy. The conviction and courage which they displayed in their fight for justice is to be commended by this House. The committee fought a long and hard battle to get justice for the victims of this tragedy. To show its impartiality, it is often said that justice is blind; on the issue of Stardust it appeared sometimes that justice was deaf to the truth as well.
As a local Deputy and a person who grew up close to where the Stardust tragedy took place, I have been fully aware during the course of my life of the scale of the tragedy that took place on St. Valentine’s Day 1981, when 48 innocent lives were lost and serious injury was caused to 128 others in the fire that broke out in the Stardust nightclub in Artane. Nobody from north Dublin was untouched by the tragedy. Families lost love ones, communities lost neighbours and those who did not know the dead lived in fear that the same could happen to their own family and friends.
I am very angry and really annoyed with the length of time it has taken the Government to amend the Dáil record. We would not be here today if not for the fight and determination of those in the Stardust victims’ committee who refused from day one to accept the report of the tribunal of inquiry into the tragedy in 1981. There have been many dark days for those on the victims’ committee, yet their determination has been relentless in trying to get the truth into the public domain as to what really happened on that night.
The manner in which the Stardust victims’ committee was treated down through the years and even recently is nothing short of a disgrace. The pain of their loss was magnified by their anger with the length of time it has taken for these people to get some justice. The compensation awarded to victims’ families was dreadful and pathetic.
Since being elected as a public representative, I have tried on all occasions to support the victims’ committee in its quest to have the investigation reopened and to obtain the truth as to what really happened. The original tribunal report was flawed and stated that the most probable cause of the Stardust fire was arson. This inaccuracy was allowed to continue unchallenged for many years as successive Governments refused to hold another inquiry. Defending a mistaken conclusion in the report made the horror the families involved suffered all the worse.
I commend the role played by the media, particularly in the context of various editions of RTE’s “Prime Time” programme, which helped highlight the flaws of the Keane tribunal. It took pressure from the media, from those in the political arena and from the victims’ committee to force the Government to reopen this inquiry. Victims’ families continually campaigned for a new public inquiry, based on new evidence and witness statements that contradicted the Keane inquiry’s conclusions. The committee also obtained three reports from fire experts, which also contradicted the findings in the Keane report. It took 26 years, from 15 February 1981 until 13 April 2007, to obtain an external examination to ascertain if there was a case to reopen the inquiry. Mr. John Gallagher was chosen to head that inquiry.
The families of the Stardust victims were informed that full costs arising from an examination into their claims for a public inquiry would not be paid by the State. This caused considerable anguish because the families reportedly believed that, without aid, they would not be able to match the resources of other parties involved in the examination and so put their case effectively. The inquiry was thrown into doubt when it was revealed that Mr. Gallagher had acted as a junior counsel for the Garda when the deaths were brought before the Coroner’s Court in 1982. On 29 March 2008, Mr. Gallagher resigned from the commission. Solicitor for the families, Mr. Greg O’Neill, said his clients had lost all faith in the process of private assessment and that their submission, Nothing But the Truth, which was presented to Mr. Gallagher should be brought to a full public inquiry.
On 10 July 2008 the Government finally established an independent examination of the case for a renewed inquiry into the cause of the fire at the Stardust, Artane, headed by Mr. Paul Coffey, SC. Mr. Coffey’s report was noted by Government and published on 23 January 2009. Once again, however, the victims’ committee was treated poorly by the Government and was obliged to stage a protest at Government Buildings in order to obtain a copy of the Coffey report. I strongly welcome the recommendation in the Coffey report which acknowledges that the actual cause of the fire is unknown and that none of the persons present on the night in question could be held responsible.
Mr. Coffey’s findings and conclusions finally justify and vindicate the Stardust families campaign for the truth about the Stardust fire disaster to be publicly acknowledged and acted upon by the Government.
That the Stardust Victims and their families were abandoned by the State is graphically acknowledged by Mr. Coffey in his call for Government action to see to the unmet needs of the victims and their families twenty eight years after the disaster. It alone stands as an indictment of the Irish State.
The removal of the findings of arson opens a door that was closed to the families. The finding of arson caused considerable distress to the bereaved families and injured survivors and deterred them from pursuing remedies through the courts against the owners and operators of the premises and/or public bodies with statutory responsibilities.
Mr Coffey’s findings and conclusions present an opportunity for the Irish State to remedy the injustice the families have suffered. The families call upon the Government to examine the issues outlined in this report with a view to establishing the likely cause of the fire. The families will cooperate with the Government and all political parties in the Dáil to see that Mr. Coffey’s recommendations are fully implemented.
I welcome the recommendation from the Government to the effect that the State should provide medical and counselling treatment to the victims. It was another failing of the State at the time not to provide help or support to those families of the victims. All victims should have received these services when the original tribunal report was published.
I commend the work of the Stardust victims’ committee, which is led, among others, by Ms Christine Keegan, Ms Antoinette Keegan and Ms Gertrude Barrett. Those involved with the committee deserve our respect and our praise. Without their drive, determination and commitment, the Dáil record would have remained incorrect. They have defended their loved ones with dignity, honour and passion. No one could have done more. I salute their achievement.
Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this historic motion. I also warmly welcome the many Stardust survivors and family members who are present in the Public Gallery to finally witness the correction of the official public record on what happened at the Stardust nightclub in Artane almost 28 years ago, when 48 young people so tragically lost their lives. This motion is a vindication of the heroic and valiant nearly 28-year campaign on the part of the Stardust families to achieve some level of justice for their loved ones and for the survivors of the inferno which occurred at the nightclub in 1981.
I have already warmly welcomed two critical recommendations in the report undertaken by Mr. Paul Coffey, SC, on the correction of the public record on the 1981 Stardust disaster to acknowledge “that the cause of the fire is unknown and that none of the persons present on the night of the fire can be held responsible for it” and on the urgent need to establish “a Committee to monitor the counselling and medical needs of the survivors and bereaved”.
It has been a long and difficult struggle for the Stardust victims’ and relatives’ committee. Every step forward in this search for justice and truth has been the result of tenacious and ferocious effort on the part of the victims and relatives, often in the face of appalling stonewalling and seeming duplicity by successive Fianna Fáil-led Governments. In late 2006 and early 2007, the positive identification of the five remaining unidentified victims of the Stardust tragedy at St. Fintan’s Cemetery, Sutton, was another major victory in the victims and relatives long and courageous campaign.
I again pay public tribute to the outstanding leadership shown by Ms Christine Keegan, Ms Antoinette Keegan, Ms Gertrude Barrett and Ms Brid McDermott of the Stardust victims’ and relatives’ committee. Without these women, the Coffey report and tonight’s quashing of the Keane conclusion of arson would never have come about.
The 1981 Stardust tragedy was the worst fire disaster in the history of the State. On St. Valentine’s night of that year, 48 young people predominantly from parishes — Bonnybrook, Kilmore, Coolock, Darndale, Kilbarrack, Raheny and Donaghmede — across my constituency of Dublin North-East and my city ward of Artane went out for the night to socialise, as young people throughout the world often do, and tragically never returned home to their families.
The impact of the Stardust disaster on communities throughout Dublin North-East and the Artane ward was indescribably devastating. Some families lost two or three of their beloved sons and daughters. On some streets every second house had a family connection to one of the tragic victims or survivors of the events that occurred on St. Valentine’s night 1981. The scars relating to what happened that night are still deeply etched across our community and have been made worse by the appallingly shabby and at times almost inhuman way the Stardust victims and relatives have been treated in the 28 years since the disaster.
The abandonment of the Stardust victims and their relatives by the State and the refusal to investigate forensically every aspect of what really happened on that tragic night is without doubt one of the most shameful and unjust episodes in our country’s entire history. In the mid-1980s, survivors and the bereaved received very modest compensation payments. Even worse, basic facilities such as counselling services for the survivors and the bereaved or ongoing medical monitoring for those who had been severely injured on the night of the fire were never provided or made available.
Over 21 years ago, I was involved in the titanic struggle on the part of the Stardust victims’ and relatives’ committee to establish the Stardust Memorial Park in Coolock to commemorate the victims of the disaster. As secretary of the Bonnybrook parish committee, I joined Ms Chrissie Keegan, Ms Antoinette Keegan, Ms Barrett, Mr. Willie Mulvey, Mr. Jimmy Dunne and others on the picket line outside the office of the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey. As a result of this, we were eventually given a grant of £500,000 by what was then Dublin Corporation.
The horrific deaths and injuries of that terrible night were also compounded by the conclusions of the wholly flawed Keane report. The conclusion that arson was the most probable cause of the 1981 fire was particularly grievous and offensive for the Stardust survivors and relatives who rightly felt this cast a completely unacceptable slur on their blameless loved ones who had innocently gone out for the night and ended up in a nightmarish inferno at the Stardust. A key element of the Stardust families’ campaign, which has been vindicated tonight, has therefore always been to have this unsafe and indefensible conclusion rejected and expunged from the public record.
In the Dáil debate in February 2006, I called the conclusions of the original Keane tribunal report into the Stardust disaster “untrustworthy, unfair and unsafe”. I still believe that is the case and over the years outstanding pieces of investigative work by the Stardust victims’ committee and its technical adviser, Ms Geraldine Foy, and by various journalists, especially the landmark book, They Never Came Home: The Stardust Story, by our distinguished northside journalists Tony McCullogh and Neil Fetherstonhaugh, have built up a case that has culminated in the Coffey report and today’s correction of the official record of the State.
In 2001, the publication of They Never Came Home: The Stardust Story, by Tony McCullogh and Neil Fetherstonhaugh, was a catalyst in the re-examination of Mr. Justice Keane’s conclusions. The book, which got its title from a song by Christy Moore, a great supporter of the Stardust relatives, concluded that the fire was not malicious and had possibly started in the roof space and not in the seats in the west alcove.
In 2004, the Stardust victims’ committee commissioned a local scientist, Ms Geraldine Foy, to revisit the 1982 Keane tribunal report and to collate all of the new evidence that had come to light from various media and professional investigations into the disaster. The subsequent paper by Ms Foy forensically demolished the Keane report conclusion that the fire was begun deliberately.
The report also published compelling evidence that the Keane conclusion on the location of the origin of the fire was patently unsound. Indeed, Ms Foy’s report clearly showed that the Keane tribunal had inaccurate plans for the Stardust building and ignored the role of a large quantity of stored inflammables in the conflagration.
In November 2004, I accompanied a delegation of Stardust survivors and relatives to meet Mr. Sean Aylward, Secretary General of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and Mr. Noel Sinnott, principal officer, on the conclusions of Geraldine Foy’s report. Unfortunately, the members of the Stardust victims’ committee felt compelled to walk out of that meeting because they believed rightly that the Department was refusing to take this report seriously.
In February 2006, I based my rejection in this House of the Keane tribunal report on six key elements. First, the serious conflict of interest in the use of the fire research station of the United Kingdom Department of the Environment, which had also worked immediately prior to the disaster for Dublin Corporation; second, section 8.92 of the Keane tribunal report —the serious breaches of building by-laws and public resort laws, which were never properly dealt with or invigilated by the Keane tribunal; third, the deeply flawed original forensic examination by the gardaí and the Department of Justice; fourth, the faulty conclusions on the operation of the electrical system within the Stardust; fifth, the faulty conclusions on the origin of the fire on the night of the inferno; and, sixth, the failure to bring anybody to account for the deaths of 48 young people that night.
Fundamental questions remain about how the Stardust was run, how the relevant authorities and especially Dublin Corporation at the time invigilated the operation of the Stardust in terms of planning and fire safety and fire control laws, and the appalling stories we have subsequently heard about chained and locked emergency exits. Profound local suspicions remain that the authorities never intended to investigate fully what happened on the night of the fire, and there are allegations of even deeper conspiracies to prevent the truth coming out.
Following another initiative by the Stardust victims’ committee, in November 2006 a detailed memorandum, Nothing But The Truth — The Case for a New Public Inquiry, was sent to the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, outlining the reason a new inquiry was essential. That submission by the committee’s solicitor, Mr. Greg O’Neill, painstakingly reviewed all the evidence submitted to the Keane tribunal, and subsequent discoveries, and made a powerful conclusion that there was no basis in evidence for the finding of arson. Especially striking in Mr. O’Neill’s fine report is the evidence given by fire experts Mr. Robin Knox, a former fire chief in Dublin, Mr. Tony Gillick, and the professor of fire dynamics in University of Ulster, Professor Delichatsios.
The victims’ committee was treated appallingly during this period and given the run-around by the then Taoiseach, Deputy Ahern, and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Michael McDowell. Like the relatives, I was dismayed by the Government lethargy at the time, especially as the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, lived only about 100 m from the nightclub at the time of the inferno.
In July 2008, Mr. Paul Coffey was appointed to conduct the independent examination of the Stardust victims’ committee’s case for a reopened inquiry into the fire and produced the recommendations we have before us. On the day of the report’s publication last week, I strongly welcomed conclusions 5.11, 5.12, 5.13 and 5.14 which clearly acknowledge that the original Keane tribunal conclusion that arson was the cause of the 1981 fire is unsound and unsafe and must be officially and publicly rejected.
Mr. Coffey’s key recommendation that the Government should correct the public record “by placing on the record of the Dáil and Seanad an acknowledgement of the tribunal’s findings that there is no evidence that the fire was started deliberately and that the cause of the fire is unknown” provides a full vindication of the long campaign of the Stardust victims’ committee.
Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: The further recommendation of Mr. Coffey that “if such an acknowledgement cannot be made whether by this method or any other appropriate method of the Government’s devising, this of itself would prove the need for a further limited inquiry to clarify the public record” provides irrefutable evidence that the 1982 Keane report was flawed.
The core of Mr. Coffey’s final report, therefore, adopts and accepts one of the long-standing key arguments of the Stardust victims’ committee that the original tribunal’s “finding of fact that the fire was probably caused deliberately is based on hypothesis and not established by evidence and is for that reason inherently unsatisfactory”.
I note that conclusion is fully reflected in the Government’s motion before us. The full legal implications of this finding have not yet been fully comprehended and digested and I am aware that the report is still being carefully studied by the Stardust victims’ committee and its advisors. I regret, however, that the fifth part of the motion does not clearly apologise for the grief and distress endured by the relatives and survivors because of the Keane tribunal finding.
The second most critical recommendation of Mr. Coffey relates to the establishment of a committee to monitor finally the progress of the victims and their relatives and ensure that counselling and medical treatment, where necessary and appropriate, are afforded to the survivors and the bereaved at the expense of the State.
Some Stardust survivors and relatives may be disappointed that a new inquiry has not been recommended in this report, and it must be stated that for the past five years the committee has been seeking a commission of investigation under the McDowell legislation and not a tribunal.
I share some of that disappointment although I am delighted that the Coffey report has rejected the key finding of the original tribunal report and fully vindicated the work of the Stardust victims’ committee. I still believe there is a case to be made for a new comprehensive but short commission of investigation under the 2004 Act to address fully issues of the cause of and wider culpability for the fire.
Besides the immediate cause of the fire there are the wider issues of responsibility under the planning and building control regulations of the time and the obstruction of the Keane tribunal by Eamon and Patrick Butterly. Dublin Corporation building control section certainly knew the Stardust was a dangerously-run building before the disaster and many of my constituents believe the owners, and Dublin Corporation, should still be prosecuted for their failures.
However, this night belongs to Christine, Antoinette, Gertrude, Brid, Willie, Jimmy, Linda and all of the other Stardust survivors and families who fought so hard in memory of their 48 beloved family members who perished on that awful night in 1981. I hope they will now find some measure of closure and peace in their lives.
It is also appropriate at this time to remember each of the tragic young victims of 14 February 1981: Michael Barrett, Richard Bennett, Carol Bissett, James Buckley, Paula Byrne, Caroline Carey, John Colgan, Jacqueline Croker, Liam Dunne, Michael Farrell, David Flood, Thelma Frazer, Michael French, Josephine Glen, Michael Griffiths, Robert Hillick, Brian Hobbs, Eugene Hogan, Murtagh Kavanagh, Martina Keegan, Mary Keegan, Robert Kelly, Mary Kennedy, Mary Kenny, Margaret Kiernan, Sandra Lawless, Francis Lawlor, Maureen Lawlor, Paula Lewis, Eamon Loughman, George McDermott, Marcella McDermott, William McDermott, Julie McDonnell, Teresa McDonnell, Gerard McGrath, Caroline McHugh, Donna Mahon, Helena Mangan, James Millar, Susan Morgan, David Morton, Kathleen Muldoon, George O’Connor, Brendan O’Meara, John Stout, Margaret Thornton, Paul Wade.
Let us also not forget the great John Keegan, father of Mary and Martina, husband of Christine and father of Antoinette. In the words of Laurence Binyon on its First Memorial Stone in Beaumont Hospital:
This month 28 years ago Ireland witnessed the worst fire disaster in the history of the State. The inferno in the Stardust disco cost the lives of 48 young people. It caused horrific injuries to many others and devastated the working class communities affected. While 48 lost their lives as a direct consequence of the fire, the pain and suffering of those families affected led to poor health and mental anguish. This was compounded by the Government and legal inaction in the following years.
That family members of the victims of the Stardust fire had to stage a three-day sit-in outside Government Buildings last month to force the Government to publish the latest report on the fire has been typical of their treatment. The survivors and families of victims were forced to fight hard for justice for their loved ones. From the fight for compensation to the fight for a commemorative park, they have had to battle every step of the way. I applaud each and every one of those affected by the Stardust disaster.
The findings of the original 1982 tribunal of inquiry into the Stardust fire were contradictory. The tribunal of inquiry concluded that there was no evidence of an accidental origin to the fire and equally no evidence that the fire had been started deliberately. However, it also concluded that the probable cause of the fire was arson. This unsubstantiated and inconsistent finding which was always contested by the families has been decisively dismissed by the independent examination commissioned by the Government and published last month.
It was the unsound conclusion of probable arson which paved the way for the owners of the Stardust, the Butterly family, to successfully sue the taxpayer for £600,000 for malicious damage. The profit-hungry pub owners and management were responsible for an extremely dangerous policy of locking and chaining the emergency exits and placed steel plates over numerous windows, all of which grossly impeded emergency exit. They continued this policy despite receiving notices from Dublin Corporation in advance of the fire demanding that these practices cease.
The victims of the fire were predominantly working class and many were in a financially vulnerable position. It was several years after the payout to the Butterly family that they secured compensation. I wonder whether the Butterly family will be asked or compelled to repay the £600,000 award it received.
To date, no one has been held liable or accountable for the devastating loss of life in the Stardust fire. One cannot help but suspect that if the tragedy had occurred in a nightclub in a more affluent area, the Government response to the victims and the legal repercussions for recklessly negligent owners and management would have been different.
Mr. Coffey’s categorical finding that there is no evidence of arson finally opens the door to legal cases by the families. Mr. Coffey also recommended that a structure be put in place to ensure the outstanding needs for counselling and medical treatment are met. That such a basic necessity needs to be spelled out 28 years on from the fire is an indictment of this and previous Governments and their unforgivable abandonment of the victims and their families.
In 2001 a fire broke out in a public house in the Netherlands killing 14 people and injuring 300 others. The Dutch authorities put all questions of legal liability to the side and instantly made €18 million available for social and psychological care for the victims. As a state and society, we should be judged on how we meet the needs of our most vulnerable citizens. The shameful treatment of all those devastated by the Stardust disaster is evidence that we still have a very long way to go.
Comhbhrón ó chroí dóibh siúd a gortaíodh agus dóibh siúd a chaill mac nó iníon sa tragóid uafásach seo. Tá súil agam go mbeidh suaimhneas síoraí acu siúd atá imithe romhainn a fuair bás ar an oíche ghránna sin.
Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Deputy Seán Haughey): I am pleased to have an opportunity to make a small contribution to this debate. This is an important motion, having regard to the history of the Stardust fire. The fire in the Stardust nightclub in Artane on St. Valentine’s Day 1981 was an appalling tragedy which resulted in a terrible loss of life. Forty-eight people were killed and many more injured in the fire. All those who died were young people looking forward to the future and living full and active lives. Their families were devastated by the fire which has scarred the communities of Artane, Coolock, Raheny, Donnycarney and Kilbarrack to this day.
The tribunal of inquiry established at the time, the so-called Keane inquiry, found that the probable cause of the fire was arson. This was a hopeless finding which did not satisfy anybody and caused serious distress for the families of the bereaved. That it was merely an opinion of the inquiry chairman made matters worse. The motion is important for this reason. Notwithstanding the location of the fire when it first started, its cause remains unknown and it appears from the findings of Mr. Paul Coffey that it will never be known.
I pay tribute to Mr. Greg O’Neill, solicitor for the families of the Stardust victims, who in 2006 presented to the Government the families’ submission entitled, Nothing but the Truth. As stated, the submission was largely based on a previous book written by Neil Fetherstonhaugh and Tony McCullagh entitled, They Never Came Home: The Stardust Story, which features a foreword by Christy Moore. Anybody who wishes to understand the full circumstances of the Stardust fire should read this book which is a fair and accurate reflection of the fire and subsequent events. I wish, however, to clear up one of a small number of inaccuracies in the book because it is raised from time to time. The submission that Mr. Patrick Butterly was related in some way to my father, Mr. Charles Haughey, or his election agent at the time, Mr. Pat O’Connor, is a complete inaccuracy. It is worthwhile to correct the record on this matter.
I regret that Deputies Terence Flanagan and Broughan introduced a party political note to the debate. It should be noted that a Fine Gael-Labour Party Government led by Garret FitzGerald established the compensation arrangements which have been criticised in this debate. We should not take a party political stance on the issue. Any fair-minded assessment of the book to which I referred will demonstrate that my father, the late Charles Haughey, did everything in his power to deal with the matter, as has been recognised by the relatives of the victims of the Stardust fire. For this reason, I regret the party political tone introduced to the debate.
I pay tribute to the Stardust victims’ committee, in particular the Keegan family, including the late John Keegan whom I did not know very well, and Christine Keegan and her daughter, Antoinette, whom I know very well. I have worked constructively with them and other members of the committee on a number of issues during the years. From time to time, certain issues rose temporarily to the top of the committee’s agenda. One such issue was the planning applications submitted for the site of the Stardust nightclub in Artane. As a city councillor, I was pleased to work with the committee on the insensitive planning applications submitted by the Butterly family in respect of the site and we were successful in that regard. The idea that one would open a public house or licensed premises on the site is simply appalling, as Dublin City Council recognised. It has still to be determined what will happen to the site.
The owners of the Stardust nightclub, the Butterly family, have many questions to answer. The tribunal found that they had acted with reckless disregard for the safety of their patrons, although no charges have been brought against members of the family. It is ironic in the extreme that the Butterly family subsequently claimed substantial damages from Dublin Corporation.
I also worked closely with the Stardust victims’ committee on the provision of a suitable memorial to the victims of the awful tragedy. The Stardust Memorial Park in Bonnybrook, constructed at a cost of £250,000, is a suitable and fitting memorial to those who died in the fire. It consists of a park, water feature, rose garden and a sculpture of two young dancers designed by Mr. Robin Buick. For relatives or anyone affected by the fire in any way, the park is a place where one can get solitude and remember the victims.
I also worked with the committee on its strong wish that such a tragedy would never happen again. A lot of work has been done in that regard. The Minister outlined in his address what has been done to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. All of the Stardust recommendations have received full and careful consideration and have been implemented or taken into account in the ongoing formulation of policy on fire safety and the development of local authority fire services in the intervening period.
Improvements have been carried out on a comprehensive basis. The fire service has changed totally since 1981. There have been significant improvements, affecting all areas of the service and how it does its business, especially in more recent years. These include increased investment in infrastructure and equipment, more staff, better training and communications and various pieces of legislation. The committee can be proud that it achieved its objective to do everything possible to prevent such a tragedy from happening in future.
On 17 April 2002 I wrote to Ms Antoinette Keegan and said I believed there was now a compelling case to review all aspects of this situation, having regard to recent developments, new information and the changed circumstances and supported her demand for a new inquiry to look at the causes and circumstances of the fire and to examine the issue of compensation for survivors and relatives of the disaster.
It has been a long battle but much progress was made down through the years. The five unidentified victims could be identified, having been exhumed and undergone new scientific analysis using DNA. That has brought enormous comfort to the families involved. I have often visited the graves in St. Fintan’s Cemetery in Sutton and it is a great relief to see the individual headstones and that the families can be sure of exactly where their loved ones are buried.
I am conscious of the recommendation from Mr. Paul Coffey that outstanding counselling and medical treatment should be afforded to survivors and the bereaved. This should have been provided by the State to those who were obviously suffering. I welcome that recommendation. The committee should be set up immediately, with involvement from the HSE. I take on board what the Minister said this evening.
I thank the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern. He showed enormous patience in dealing with this issue and moving on the agenda. I also thank the media and, in particular, RTE for highlighting various issues of concern to the committee over the years. Finally, I extend my sincere sympathy, at this difficult time when we are coming up to the anniversary of the fire, to the families of the victims and those who were injured. I hope the report and this motion will provide some sort of closure and peace of mind.
Deputy Richard Bruton: I sympathise with the families who have suffered such appalling hurt extended over a long period. Many people regard me as having been a long time in the Dáil, but this happened before I came to represent Dublin North-Central. It was one of the most appalling experiences any family could go through and put huge scars on people’s lives that can never be repaired. We welcome that at long last, after 27 years, there will be provision made to support those people. They have been through such an appalling experience that it is disappointing it has taken so long to come to this day.
Many of the families and those in the neighbourhood felt seriously aggrieved that a cloud hung over those who attended on that night. The suggestion that arson was a possible cause of this fire has been another burden to carry and has caused anger and frustration, which has been made worse by the fact that there was a sense that no one was ever held responsible for what happened. The performance on the night, the way the place was run and the lack of responsibility taken by those responsible for it wounded people, and they will never overcome the experience.
I welcome this step forward. It is good to see that at last the cloud of arson as a cause is being removed and has not been supported by any of the facts, as found by Mr. Coffey. It is progress. At this stage we must try to let people move on with as much dignity as possible after such a painful experience.
I share Deputy Haughey’s view that the former Taoiseach took an enduring interest in this case. One of his strengths in politics has always been the ability to try to find ways to move something forward, even when dealing with difficult things. This case did sustain his interest. I know there were frustrations along the way and people felt that maybe he had lost sight of the ball at times, but it was something he tried to keep on the agenda.
I hope the relatives can take some sustenance from this report and the views of all parties in the Oireachtas supporting their position after so many years. We are coming up to the terrible anniversary, which will be a very difficult time for those affected but hopefully there will be a sense that something has been achieved for the great perseverance and commitment that those who have been involved in this campaign over many years have shown.
I, like other Members of the House, sympathise with those who are represented in the Gallery and many others who cannot be here and have also suffered huge hurt over the years. I hope this, in some way, brings a part of the chapter to a close, even though we all know the wounds will never be healed in their entirety.
Deputy Cyprian Brady: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion and continue the analogy mentioned by Deputy Bruton that this process is the removal of one cloud from over the heads of the families and friends of those lost that night. Any discussion we have here must start with a recognition of the loss and grief of the families and friends of the young people who died that night.
Over the years, while the grief may have diminished for the wider community around the Stardust, it has not for the families and friends of those who were there that night. Coming from that area originally and having had friends and family there on that night, I remember the atmosphere of grief and shock that pervaded the area for many weeks and, as Deputy Haughey said, for many years after that fateful night. It is something a community, as a whole, takes a long time to recover from. The step forward we are taking tonight, after many years of fighting by the victims’ friends and families, is to be welcomed. As well as those who lost their lives that night, many were seriously injured. We should recognise that they and their families have had to live with the aftermath for the past 28 years.
As others pointed out, there have been a number of efforts, in conjunction with the families, to obtain some form of closure. The Coffey report recognises that it is not possible to conclude that arson took place that night, which will assist the families in trying to come to terms with what happened. We read the books and saw the television programmes, but if one was not in the Stardust or had a family member there that night, it is impossible to comprehend what it is like to go through something like it.
Efforts have been made by parties on both sides of the House to bring closure to the Stardust tragedy and it is right not to politicise this matter. There were legal complications along the way and other issues with which the families were unhappy. It is welcome, however, that some progress has been made. In this respect the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, mentioned the memorial. In addition, the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, has referred to victims whose remains could not be identified. Huge efforts were made to resolve that issue which was one step along a very long road.
The various inquiries, including the initial Stardust tribunal, raised issues such as door locks and the response of the emergency services. Recommendations have led to the transformation of fire and medical services. Please God, we will never have to go through another night like that one which brought to light all the inadequacies inside and outside the building, as well as those of the services involved. Many changes have taken place as a direct result of some of the information gained following the tragedy.
The possibility of arson was always hanging over what had happened in the Stardust, but the Coffey report has finally put to rest any such question marks. I welcome the Government’s acknowledgement that there is no recognisable cause of the fire. Twenty-eight years is a long time in anybody’s life. Things can change over such a time and it is very difficult to find answers at such a remove.
I fully support the recommendations concerning services required by the families concerned. Part of the thrust of the efforts made is to provide adequate services which everybody accepts were not provided at the start. These include bereavement counselling and medical services which must be provided even today. I welcome the Minister’s statement that the intention is to meet the needs of those involved.
Working with the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, I had a small part to play in efforts made to help the families of the five unidentified Stardust victims. While it was not an easy process to go through, it was ten times harder for the families and friends involved. Any solution found can only be welcomed. Every effort should be made to maintain such interaction with the families and the group representing them. I welcome the assurances that a similar spirit will continue to prevail in any dealings with the families.
Having had the experience of living and working in the area in the months and years after the Stardust tragedy, I know that nothing can prepare a person for such a tragic event. The families have maintained their position during the years and kept up the fight which has paid small dividends along the way, but it has been a long road. Whatever services can be provided for them and placed at the disposal of the group representing them should be provided. I encourage those officials dealing directly with the families to ensure their work is done in a compassionate and helpful way. As the anniversary of the tragedy approaches each year, we are all reminded of what occurred that night. Any right-minded person would accept that those directly affected by the events should be treated with dignity and respect.
Deputy Ruairí Quinn: I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to the motion. Once again, I extend my sympathy and condolences to the many relatives and extended families affected by the tragedy, some of whom I know personally. The tragedy had an extraordinary impact in the area represented by Deputies Terence Flanagan, Bruton, Haughey and Broughan. From the work Deputy Broughan did over many years, both as a councillor and latterly as a Deputy, I know how much this matter means to him because he lived among the communities directly affected. While the effect on the immediate community was enormous and while what happened is properly commemorated by the park of remembrance, the effect was also felt nationwide. I can still distinctly remember that morning 28 years ago when my two young children, then aged eight and nine years, came in early to my bedroom to say there had been a terrible tragedy. The poignancy of a disco going up in flames on St. Valentine’s weekend was so cruel.
The title of the book, to which the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, referred so eloquently, They Never Came Home: The Stardust Story, represents every parents’ nightmare. Every time children go out — whether they are aged three, five, 15, 20 or even 35 and 40 years — there is a part of every parent that never stops worrying and says, “Let’s hope they come home.” One can only imagine, but not feel and, certainly, not experience, the trauma the extended community of the families and friends of the 48 victims has gone through. For many, it is still a raw agony that will never heal. Some are present in the Visitors Gallery.
I acknowledge the work done by the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, and the presence of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern. We are correcting officially the conclusions of a report by an inquiry established by a previous generation of Dáil Deputies. I have been a Member of the House for a long time — I recognise the Minister is a qualified lawyer — and I think I am right in saying there have been very few, if any, other cases in which this has been done. This has not come about lightly or with ease, but has come about because of the tenacity of people like Greg O’Neill, the solicitor, the people on the action committee and the sense of injustice of many people in our extended administrative system. The conclusion, however well-intended, of the chairperson of the original tribunal, and the opinion formed, without reference to tangible physical evidence, that this was an act of arson, was doubtful in the extreme to begin with, and highly hurtful to the participants in that event and to the children who went there.
I say by way of some kind of balm, if not comfort, that something significant has been achieved here tonight for those who were directly affected, and for every citizen of this Republic. Things that were deemed to have been incorrectly adjudicated upon, and a conclusion found in the light of subsequent events or upon reflection to be wrong — no matter how eminent the justice was who came to that conclusion — following Mr. Coffey’s analysis of these matters, that justice has been deemed to have come to a wrong conclusion. Consequently, having reported that the conclusion of arson was wrong, the process of correction was initiated. This did not happen easily. It required people in the system to say the system had made a mistake, because a person appointed by the system came to a conclusion that was insupportable.
We are now correcting that mistake. This says two things. It says to the people directly affected, to the parents and the extended community, that it was not anybody’s fault that night through any act of arson that this horrible tragedy occurred. We are also saying something else as a Republic. We are saying that sometimes when we get things wrong and when the system, collectively, gets things wrong, it is essential, as in private and personal life, to put our hands up and say “We got it wrong. We are sorry and will correct it.” We do that so that the record, forever, for the grandchildren of the grandchildren of those related to those victims, will have it corrected that the original conclusions that cast a slur upon them and a black mark across an extended community have been removed.
For that alone, I thank all of those directly involved in this process, in particular the Minister and Minister of State here present, Deputies Dermot Ahern and Seán Haughey. Had a different Minister been in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, had different officials been in positions of responsibility throughout the system, we would not be passing this motion tonight. It takes courage, a certain strength of character and a degree of democratic empathy with other people to say a mistake has been made; let us correct it and let the record show it has been corrected. I am very pleased, as a Deputy, to be in the House tonight and to associate myself with this decision.
Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern): I thank all the Deputies who spoke on this important motion. I concur with Deputies on all sides in what was said. Deputy Bruton was very gracious to acknowledge the efforts made by former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, as was Deputy Quinn.
I very much welcome what Deputy Quinn said on this issue, on behalf of those of us sitting on this side of the House, for my recent involvement as Minister and that of the Attorney General and the Government. I do not think people should underestimate the enormity of what the Government is proposing in this regard. Thankfully, we are getting all-party support on the motion. As Deputy Quinn quite rightly said — he has experience of being in Government — it is significant for us to turn around and correct what is wrong or correct a perception that people were being blamed when they should not have been. It is important we put up our hands and come in with a motion and declare the wrong conclusion was drawn. Credit must be given to Mr. Coffey for the forensic manner in which he examined the particular report.
I echo the sentiments of those Deputies who expressed thanks to those who have come before us. I have no doubt that those who looked at all the issues did their best within the circumstances and restrictions in which they found themselves to try and get to the bottom of what exactly happened on this particular occasion.
I fully empathise with the sentiments expressed by Deputy Quinn with regard to being a parent and waiting for the door to shut at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning when one’s children return. Parents do not get a night’s sleep until that happens. Recently, I said to my wife that I got more sleep when my kids were two or three years of age than I do now they are 18 and 19. I empathise with any parent in that respect. None of us can imagine the difficulties and the hurt these families have undergone over the past number of years. I just hope that by doing what we are doing here today we can in some way assuage the difficulties they have experienced over their lives.
I thank the families for their persistence in addressing this issue against what they may have felt were people putting obstacles in their way, although these were genuinely doing their level best, but working within the restrictions being in Government involves and the restrictions involved in dealing with culpability in such issues.
On the question of whether lessons have been learned, like Deputy Quinn, I was a young solicitor plying my trade in Dundalk around that time, having qualified in 1976. I recall the incredibly quick changes that took place — Deputy Quinn as an architect would be aware of this — with regard to fire safety regulations and standards within months of this incident happening. I remember from my time in the District Court that many publicans and dancehall owners were put to the pin of their collars to try to fulfil and comply with the new regulations introduced.
We have changed legislation to put the onus on owners and have changed the regulations relating to fire safety. We have put resources into the fire services. I cannot say whether we could say this will never happen again, but we can take some credit for the fact that over the past three decades political parties of every hue that have been in Government have put in the resources and changed the legislation.
I thank the families for their persistence and for the representatives they have had. As far as the Government is concerned, it more than willingly brought forward this motion. We received a first draft of the report before Christmas. There has been no delay on the part of the Government. Mr. Coffey requested on a number of occasions, subsequent to delivering his first report, to make a number of slight amendments to it. We did not get the final report until 7 January and it was only then the Government could deliberate on it. Having taken the Attorney General’s advice and having discussed it at Government, it was decided on 23 January to publish the report and move this motion in the House.
I welcome the all-party support on the motion. I welcome too the reaction of the families to the report. I hope and pray that what we are doing here today will assuage some of the hurt and grief caused to them as a result of this horrific incident in 1981.
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