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'Please god we get closure once and for all': How Stardust families got the break they needed in 2019

After years of unsuccessfully seeking new inquiries, new inquests were ordered into the deaths of Stardust victims this year.

Stardust activists delivering 48,000 signatures to the Attorney General in November 2018.
Stardust activists delivering 48,000 signatures to the Attorney General in November 2018.
Image: Liam McBurney/PA Images

IN SEPTEMBER 2019, new inquests were granted into the deaths of the 48 people who died in the Stardust fire.

It came on the back of decades of campaigning from families of the victims and survivors for new investigations and inquiries into what happened on the night of 13 February 1981.

For years – and especially in the last decade – those efforts hadn’t yielded much success as almost every new development from the State led to a dead end. 

So what changed in the last few years? And what will happen with the inquests now next year?

Stardust fire

Over 800 young people packed into the Stardust club in Artane, north Dublin on 13 February 1981.

It was a big night, as dozens took to the floor for the final of the big disco dancing competition. When the night was winding down, a fire was spotted in one of the corners of the club, which had been closed off to patrons that night. 

Within minutes the fire had gotten out of control. 48 people died, and over 200 were injured. It was a tragedy unlike any Ireland had ever known, one of the worst in the history of the State. 

Walking through the ruins the following day, Taoiseach Charles Haughey vowed swift action and a Tribunal of Inquiry was set up to examine what happened that night.

It found “no evidence of an accidental origin, and equally no evidence that the fire was started deliberately”. 

However, the ultimate finding of the Tribunal was “the more probably explanation of the fire is that it was caused deliberately”. In effect, it ruled that someone who was there that night had caused the fire. 

No one has ever been prosecuted for causing the Stardust fire. The families took civil cases against Dublin Corporation – now Dublin City Council – in the mid-80s but a government scheme to compensate them offered them a sum of money and in return they had to drop their cases. 

In the 2000s, on the back of the 20th anniversary and renewed public interest in the case, activism among the families of victims and survivors renewed, led by the likes of Antoinette Keegan who lost two sisters in the fire.

After years of lobbying the government, a senior counsel was assigned to look at the case again. He recommended that arson be removed from the public record in the Dáil, but didn’t recommend a new inquiry into the fire.

The families continued to gather evidence that they felt could support their case but perhaps their lowest ebb was in 2017, when the latest inquiry commissioned by the government said “no new inquiry was warranted” and that the cause of the fire may never be known.

Change of tack

Former Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan became involved with the Stardust campaigners a couple of years ago.

After the repeated failures to get a new inquiry into the fire, they changed tack to begin seeking new inquests into the deaths of their loved ones.

She told TheJournal.ie’s Stardust podcast: “We wanted to look at a campaign that would just keep on pressuring and pressuring the politicians. But just how do you galvanise the public?

I think with the Stardust is, and it certainly came out with the campaign, is that the public want to help. There’s a huge amount of people out there who know about the Stardust.

The idea the activists came up with was a postcard campaign. They went to towns and cities around the country, and asked people to sign postcards supporting their calls for justice for the Stardust victims. 

The campaign was a great success. They had to repeatedly order more cards to be manufactured. They ended up with 48,000 cards signed.

“We could’ve reached 100,000,” activist Eugene Kelly – whose brother Robert died in the fire – said of the campaign. The campaign received great support among the general public and was also supported by Dublin Fire Brigade.

In November 2018, the families delivered the 48,000 signatures to the Attorney General. 

Legal efforts

Alongside public support, the campaigners switched their legal strategy to petition the Attorney General for new inquests.

Darragh Mackin from Belfast-based Phoenix Law led these efforts. 

In the submission to the Attorney General, it was pointed out the original inquests only recorded the medical cause of death and offered “uninformative” conclusions.

“In a disaster of this magnitude a more informative conclusion was required in order to meet the public interest,” the submission said.

There is also fresh evidence that could shed light on some matters that weren’t dealt with at previous inquiries, it is claimed.

“This includes important eye-witness evidence, together with assessments by a range of fire experts,” the submission said.

Highlighting the example of the Hillsborough inquests, which found in 2016 that the 96 Liverpool fans who died at the stadium in 1989 were unlawfully killed, it was argued this demonstrates how a fresh inquiry can shed light on events that took place many years ago, even where detailed investigations already took place.

“There is no reason why a new, thorough investigation of the Stardust Fire will not lead to the truth being revealed, to those responsible being held to account, and to further lessons being learned to prevent a similar tragedy in the future,” it said.


That submission was made to the Attorney General in April.

Aftera number of delays to the decision, it was announced in September that new inquests would take place for the 48 who died.

The Office of the Attorney General said he has “formed the opinion that fresh inquests into the Stardust deaths are advisable”.

This is because he considers that in the original inquests there was an insufficiency of inquiry as to how the deaths occurred, namely, a failure to sufficiently consider those of the surrounding circumstances that concern the cause of the fire. 

At an emotional press conference the following day, families gave their reaction to the news they’d been waiting for.

Referencing the victims of the fire, Eugene said: “We’ve got it… We’ve got what we wanted from the spirit world. Please God they helped and gave the strength to myself and Antoinette and the other people to come on this journey with us. Please God we get closure once and for all.”

As for how this will progress now, it’s expected that the inquests should get under way next summer after the Minister for Justice confirmed the resources would be made available to facilitate them.

Boylan told the Stardust podcast: “We presume that very early on in the new year, you’ll have the process of selective disclosure of all of those documents that are there.”

And then, hopefully, by the summer of next year the inquest would be up and running. And one of the arguments that will be made to the coroner’s court is we know there’s a huge backlog. We know they’re under pressure but given that the families have waited so long for this to actually happen, that it should be expedited.

Each year a vigil is held at the club in Artane where so many died back in 1981.

This Valentine’s Day, that vigil will be filled with a fresh hope that hasn’t been present for a long time. Families know the closure they’ve sought for so long may finally be within reach.

All six episodes of TheJournal.ie’s Stardust podcast are available now here and wherever you get your podcasts. 

About the author:

Sean Murray

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