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Sunday 10 December 2023 Dublin: 7°C
Sean Murray/ Families outside court today.
Line in the sand

There was 'State-sponsored effort to cover up' what happened at Stardust disaster, solicitor tells first inquest hearing

Families welcomed the beginning of this long-awaited process outside Dublin District Coroner’s Court today.

THE CORONER TASKED with conducting the fresh Stardust inquests has said she will not be bound by the findings of previous inquiries into the disaster, which she said had caused one of the “largest losses of life arising from one incident in the history of the State”. 

“I hope we can go forward in a positive manner and not look back at what has gone before,” Dr Myra Cullinane told today’s hearing ahead of the start of the inquests.

She also read out the names of each of those who died in the fire at Dublin District Coroner’s Court this afternoon, and said that findings will be made in relation to each individual who died.

Darragh Mackin, a solicitor representing the majority of families of the deceased, told the court that they had reached a “momentous step for families”, that these fresh inquests would draw a “line in the sand” on previous inquiries and that families were confident “that this inquest will be the pathway to justice”. 

Mackin also said it will be argued that there was a “State-sponsored effort to cover up” what happened in the club in Artane, north Dublin almost 40 years ago.

Today, the first pre-inquests hearing was held into the deaths of 48 people in the Stardust fire in February 1981.

Families have long campaigned for fresh inquiries into the death of their loved ones and, in September 2019, the Attorney General ordered new inquests into the deaths.

At midday, families gathered outside the Coroner’s Court on Store Street in Dublin.

In this Covid-ravaged year, they struck a hopeful mood as they welcomed the beginning of this long-awaited process. At one moment, each of them held a photo aloft of their loved one who died in the fire.

Visibly emotional at times, and all wearing matching face masks, they dispersed to return home and watch proceedings in the small court virtually. Only those who were representing interested parties and members of the press were permitted to attend today’s hearing in person. 

Dr Cullinane began this afternoon’s proceedings by describing the instruction given to her by the Attorney General to conduct fresh inquests into the fire.

Then-AG Seamus Woulfe wrote: “I consider this to be in the public interest and in the interest of justice.

Noting the comparison with the Hillsborough disaster, Woulfe said that it was important for the facts to be made public and for a full investigation to ‘maximise the chances that the truth should emerge’

Watching on from their homes, the families then heard each of the 48 names read out in court.

Dr Cullinane said: “I will provide time for each family to describe their loved one who died… [to] bring human detail to those lives lost.”

She said these “pen portraits” would emphasise the centrality of families within the inquests process, and have a “meaningful engagement” in proceedings.

While findings will be made in relation to each individual who died, the coroner said the “common circumstances” will be heard once, such as the cause of the fire and the circumstances leading up to it.

Dr Cullinane said that it had been the view in ordering the fresh inquests that the previous inquests may not have adequately investigated the cause of the fire, and this would be something that the new inquests would examine.

Parties who were represented at today’s hearing included legal representatives for 45 of the 48 families, Dublin Fire Brigade, Dublin City Council and Eamon Butterly – the man who ran the Stardust venue at the time of the fire.

Referring to the process in conducting these inquests as “lengthy and complex”, she said these would be entirely new inquiries separate from what has gone before, which included original inquests in the aftermath of the fire and a Tribunal of Inquiry.

“It must be stressed that these will be entirely fresh inquests, not bound by any findings of those inquests or any other investigation,” Dr Cullinane said.

“No part of this will be to review or adjuidcate on the findings of a previous investigation. These will be entirely new coroner’s inquiries.

I hope we can go forward in a positive manner and not look back at what has gone before. 

She also urged eyewitnesses who have not previously come forward to do so if they have information that may be relevant.

The coroner said: “If you believe you have evidence that can assist these inquests, please do not keep it to yourself.”

She directed them to the dedicated website set up for the inquests, which contains details on how the inquests team can be contacted.

Addressing the court, solicior Darragh Macken said that it was vitally important to put families at the “centre of the process” and welcomed the idea of having pen portraits such as had been done at the recent Grenfell or Ballymurphy inquests.

He said: “These families who have fought for 39 years have met obstacle after obstacle, in what we will say was a State-sponsored effort to cover up what happened.”

Mackin said that families had been left dissatisfied with previous investigations and that these inquests were a now a chance to “draw a line in the sand” and leave no stone unturned.

“The facts do not cease to exist and they will not be ignored,” he said. “Today marks the start in the road to justice for the 48.”

In yesterday’s Budget, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath said that specific funding had been set aside for the Stardust inquests. In separate Budget documents, it was confirmed that €8 million was set aside for this process.

Outside court today, Mackin welcomed this provision and said it would help to support the smooth and effective running of the inquests.

The next pre-inquests hearing is set to take place in six weeks’ time. The full inquests are set to get under way in Dublin Castle in the new year.