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Attorney General: Decision to open fresh Stardust inquest drew on 'analogies' from Hillsborough disaster

48 young people died in the fire at the north Dublin nightclub almost four decades ago.

Relatives of the Keegan family hold posters of Martina and Mary Keegan, two of the victims of the Stardust Fire
Relatives of the Keegan family hold posters of Martina and Mary Keegan, two of the victims of the Stardust Fire

THE ATTORNEY GENERAL has said his decision to open a new inquest into the worst fire in Ireland’s history “drew on analogies of the Hillsborough disaster”.

A fresh inquest into the blaze at the Stardust nightclub in Artane in Dublin’s Northside on Valentine’s Day in 1981, in which 48 young people died, was granted by Seamus Woulfe in September after a renewed campaign by families and survivors.

This week, Woulfe wrote to the solicitor for the families, Darragh Mackin of Phoenix Law, detailing the reasons for his decision.

The two-page letter, seen by the PA news agency, details the background of the tragedy, and the initial inquests that were held in the aftermath, hearings that the families have always rejected as shallow and unsatisfactory.

Officials originally ruled that the cause of the fire was arson, a theory that was never accepted by bereaved relatives, who said it tarnished the reputations of those who died.

The Stardust families felt this directly mirrored England’s Hillsborough disaster in April 1989, in which 96 people died and 766 others were injured during a crush at an FA Cup match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, which was later wrongly blamed on the fans themselves.

The arson ruling was later discounted following a fresh inquiry in 2009.

“After careful consideration, I decided to exercise my discretion in favour of directing that further inquests be held,” Woulfe wrote.

He continued:

I consider this to be in the public interest and in the interest of justice.
Drawing on analogies from the Hillsborough case in England, my view is that, where there is a disaster of such magnitude as that which occurred at the Stardust in February 1981, there is, in the first place, the entitlement of the families of the victims to the public revelation of the facts, but also a distinct and separate imperative that the community as a whole should be satisfied, even if belatedly, that there should be sufficient inquiry at any inquest held to maximise the chances that the truth should emerge.

Decision made ‘on balance’

Woulfe continued that he had some concerns that any inquest may not be able to ascertain how the fire started, an area where other hearings have also failed.

He noted that his reasons for not granting a new inquest would have been “considerable passage of time”, and possible unavailability of certain evidence, but “on balance, however” he had decided to go ahead.

Inquiries into the fire showed that a number of escape routes from the dance hall were blocked because emergency doors were locked by chains.

stardust-nightclub-fire A candlelit vigil at the site of the Stardust nightclub fire in Dublin Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Concerns have also been raised about the investigation of the scene, which allowed politicians and media representatives to walk through the building just days later.

Despite findings of safety breaches, there were no prosecutions over the incident.

An initial finding of probable arson meant that the relatives of the dead and injured were unable to sue the club owners and operators for alleged negligence.

In 1983, the owners of the Stardust were awarded damages of more than €730,000 after suing Dublin Corporation.

Families and survivors have been lobbying the Irish government for years in order to obtain a fresh inquiry.

‘Class element’

Despite widespread public support, campaigners have often cited a “class element” due to the location of the nightclub in Dublin’s northside as a reason for the refusal to grant any new investigations by successive governments.

Antoinette Keegan, who survived the fire, but lost her two sisters, Mary, 19, and Martina, 16, said the families finally believe they are being listened to.

“For him to make that statement like that, to say it’s Ireland’s Hillsborough, we thought that it was fantastic and a clear reference to the way we’ve been treated over the years,” she said.

“It’s going to be tough, really hard, this is going to the toughest time, going back to that night, I don’t even know how I’m going to cope.

“I still remember everything, it’s so raw, to go through that all again.

“My mum (campaigner Christine Keegan) was over the moon when we told her, but she’s 84, she has dementia, so she’ll be there but probably not absorbing the truth and reality of it.

“Which is sad in itself, she does break down now and again and remembers that her daughters were taken away from her.”

The families and their solicitor said they are keen to speak to Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan in the weeks before the inquest begins.

Keegan Stardust survivor Antoinette Keegan, whose sisters Mary and Martina died in the fire, weeps at a press conference Source: Niall Carson/PA

“We’re anxious to get it going, we want no stone unturned,” Keegan added.

“We want to sit down with Minister of Justice Charlie Flanagan, there’s outstanding issues we need resolved before this starts. We can’t have people thrown to the wolves, it’s too important.”

It is hoped the inquest will begin in early spring.

Almost 40 YEARS on from the Stardust fire, survivors and families of the victims have finally gotten a step closer to getting the answers they seek about what happened to them and their loved ones that night.

Over the course of six episodes in a special podcast series, TheJournal.ie looked through the story from the start to the current day.

We heard from survivors, first responders, journalists, and many others who have not forgotten what happened that night, almost four decades after 48 people went to a disco and never came home.

You can take a listen to all six episodes here.

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