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Louise McDermott whose brothers William and George and sister Marcellla died in the fire speaks at the 40th anniversary vigil on Sunday Leon Farrell/RollingNews.ie
Stardust fire

Stardust: Government urged to solve legal aid logjam that is delaying start of inquests

Opposition parties have urged the Taoiseach and the government to prevent any further delay right after the 40th anniversary of the disaster.

THE TAOISEACH HAS been urged to step in to solve a legal aid logjam that is preventing the commencement of the upcoming inquests into the 48 victims of the Stardust fire. 

The Labour party has written to the Taoiseach urging him to address the matter, which has seen the Department of Justice fail to release funds as part of the legal aid for families of the victims as approved by Dublin city coroner Dr Myra Cullinane. 

Sinn Féin has also urged the government to immediately release the funds to allow the inquests to get under way. 

Sunday marked the 40th anniversary of the fire in the Stardust club in north Dublin. 48 young people lost their lives in the blaze, and over 200 people were injured. The average age of the deceased was just 19 with most of them from the nearby areas of Artane, Coolock and Edenmore.

Families of the victims have long campaign for fresh inquiries into the deaths of their loved ones and, in September 2019, the Attorney General ordered that new inquests be undertaken. 

Those inquests are due to get under way early this year in Dublin’s RDS but the commencement may be delayed by the current legal aid issue. 

Solicitor Darragh Mackin, who represents 46 of the families, said that the usual process for an inquest would be for legal counsel to receive a fee for each deceased person who is represented at an inquest hearing. 

Mackin said that because of the scale of these inquests, this would escalate legal costs significantly and that his team had made a proposal to the the Department of Justice in this regard that would cost less than the usual system. 

“We have received no response,” he said. “It’s frustrating for families waiting for these inquests to get under way.”

It’s understood all other parties involved in the inquest process are instructing barristers ahead of the beginning of the hearings, but Mackin said he hadn’t yet been able to instruct barristers on behalf of the families because of the issue. 

The current situation could see the beginning of the inquests delayed until the summer at the earliest. The move has dismayed families who’ve long campaigned for these inquests. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said that his party has written to the Taoiseach and that the matter would be raised in the Dáil this week. 

“We don’t want this turning into an unseemly political row,” he said. “But this has to be sorted. We’re going to raise it and hopefully that can expedite the situation.

“For this to happen around the 40th anniversary just isn’t acceptable.”

The issue was also raised in the Seanad last Friday by Sinn Féin’s Lynn Boylan, a long-time supporter of the Stardust families.

She said: “I would like to raise the distressing news that the delay in the Stardust inquest commencing is due to the Department of Justice and its stonewalling of the legal teams representing the families and the release of funds.

“I ask that the Leader writes to the Minister for Justice and requests that she immediately meets with the legal team representing the families to resolve the issue of funding.

The Department was warned by the legal team that the legal aid route would not be the appropriate route to go down and that a special arrangement was needed, as was the case with the Hillsborough inquest, in order for the inquest of this scale to proceed. That warning was ignored by the Department of Justice.

Boylan said that the department had “ignored all of the letters” and was now refusing to release the funds to allow the inquest to proceed.

“I beg the Leader to please take this message back to the Department of Justice as these families need answers and for the inquest to start immediately,” she added.

In response, Seanad leader Regina Doherty said that “what is going on is an absolute disgrace” and said she would write to the Minister for Justice regarding the matter. 

In a statement, the Department of Justice said it has already provided support to the coroner including securing the RDS as a venue, audio-visual facilities to enable the maximum number of people to follow proceedings remotely as well as €8 million from Budget 2021 to cover costs related to the inquests. 

“The Department of Justice is aware that the Coroner has certified applications for legal aid from the families of those who died in the Stardust fire,” it said.

“The Department and its agencies continue to engage in this matter to ensure the families have the support they require.”

In a statement from the coroner Dr Myra Cullinane and her team on the 40th anniversary, she said that preparation for the inquests continue with procedural matters to be dealt with in the coming weeks. 

“At the first preliminary inquest hearing on 14 October, the Coroner ruled that the inquests would commence with pen portraits of each of the deceased. In this way the Coroner wishes to place the families at the heart of these proceedings.

Pen portraits are a form of commemoration testimony given by family members where they have an opportunity to describe their loved ones in human terms. This testimony will form an integral part of the inquests reminding us that the deceased were sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers. 

With the hearing of these testimonies there can be respect for the dead and dignity for the bereaved. The forty eight victims of the Stardust Fire will never be forgotten and will remain at the heart of the Coroner’s investigation.

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