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40 years on, Stardust families hope for answers from largest scale inquests in modern Irish history

The coroner conducting the inquests has said she will not be “bound by any findings of [previous] inquests or any other investigation”.

Funerals held for the victims of the tragedy back in February 1981.
Funerals held for the victims of the tragedy back in February 1981.
Image: Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

NEXT MONTH WILL mark the 40th anniversary of the Stardust tragedy. 

It was in the early hours of 14 February 1981 that a fire ripped through the large north Dublin nightclub. Hundreds of young people from the area attended the venue that night. 

48 of them never made it home, and over 200 people were injured. 

And, this year, after decades of campaigning, fresh inquests will formally get under way into those who died in the Stardust fire. 

After a number of pre-inquest hearings late last year, the inquests will get fully under way at the RDS with proceedings set to feature strict adherence to public health measures. 

In advance of the inquests getting under way, here’s what you need to know about the biggest inquests to be held in modern Irish history. 

Why have new inquests been ordered?

In the immediate aftermath of the Stardust fire in 1981, the Irish government ordered a Tribunal of Inquiry to look into the circumstances surrounding the tragedy. 

This was one of a number of investigations through the years into what happened that night at the Stardust, but families and campaigners have long been dissatisfied with the results of these probes and have campaigned for fresh inquiries into the distaster.

The original Tribunal finding that the probable cause of the fire was arson was never accepted by the bereaved relatives, and this finding was struck from the Dáil record in 2009.

The Stardust families argued that what happened 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.

Their campaign for a new investigation into the deaths gathered new momentum after the arson finding was struck from the Dáil record, gathering pace in 2018 and 2019. 

In September 2019, the Attorney General ordered new inquests for those who died in the Stardust.

In a two-page letter to the Stardust families’ solicitor Darragh Macken, then-AG Seamus Woulfe detailed his reasoning for ordering the new inquests.

He wrote: “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.

Woulfe noted 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.

That work got under way in 2020, with Dublin coroner Myra Cullinane tasked with conducting the fresh inquests. 

A great deal of preliminary work has been undertaken by the coroner’s team, along with legal representatives for the families and other parties involved to create a situation where the inquests can get under way this year.

What’ll be heard at the inquests?

As stated on the dedicated website for the inquests, an inquest is “a public inquiry to determine the truth. It is not a trial. It is an inquisitorial process to establish facts. An inquest is not a method of apportioning guilt or blame.” 

An inquest isn’t about finding someone or somebody at fault, it is about establishing the circumstances surrounding a person’s death.

In the case of the Stardust, it will be about examining all the available evidence to determine how the 48 people who were in the Stardust that night died.

A number of pre-inquest hearings were held late last year setting out how the inquests proper would be conducted.

In the first hearing in October, Dr Cullinane set out that each family would be given the time and space to tell their story.

She 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 ensure they 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.

It is expected that the inquests – as they must – will go into the minutest of detail concerning the events, which means that the process itself will take some time once hearings get under way. 

In the second pre-inquest hearing, she said that the inquests “will enquire into the broader circumstances surrounding the deaths” and that she would give “consideration to wider issues beyond the pathological cause of death”. 

“The scope will extend to ascertaining the cause of the fire, if possible,” the coroner said, adding that factors such as the condition of the premises prior to the fire and forensic analysis of the scene following the events may also be considered. 

Dr Cullinane said there would be three proposed “modules” to the inquest. The first would be to hear factual eye-witness evidence from the night itself.

The second would feature factual evidence on the emergency response and subsequent garda investigation. 

The third module would then feature expert evidence relating to the inquests. 

These modules however “are not set in stone”, she said. 

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

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“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 adjudicate on the findings of a previous investigation. These will be entirely new coroner’s inquiries.”

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 these potential witnesses to the dedicated website set up for the inquests, which contains details on how the inquests team can be contacted.

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

The government set aside €8 million in Budget 2021, a move which was welcomed by the families as securing and supporting the smooth running of the inquests.

The first hearings are expected to get under way in the coming months, and it is expected that the process will be concluded this year.

About the author:

Sean Murray

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