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The Pillar Room in the Rotunda where the inquests were held ©RollingNews.ie
stardust

What it was like in the room when the Stardust verdict was announced

A member of staff discreetly slid packets of tissues onto the tables where some of the family members were sitting.

IT WAS ONE of the most extraordinary moments ever in an Irish courtroom.

And it was even more extraordinary because the public could actually watch it happening.

Usually when we hear about people getting justice it’s in a newspaper or a push notification or there’s a clip on the news of people speaking outside the Four Courts. It’s afterwards. We never get to see what happens inside the room.

Until we did. At one stage there were so many people trying to watch the Stardust inquests verdict online that the Zoom meeting reached capacity and couldn’t let anyone else in.

It was as crowded inside the room as it was in the Zoom meeting. There were at least 200 people in a space that usually accommodates around half of that amount. All of the legal teams – representing the families, the coroner, Dublin City Council – gave up their seats at their big tables so that the families would have somewhere to sit. Some people doubled up, sharing seats with each other. At the back of the room, people stood shoulder to shoulder, wedged in tight.

When the 12 members of the jury came in and took their seats, the room, which had been quiet, became silent. When the foreman told the coroner that they had returned the same verdict for all 48 of the deceased, there was an audible intake of breath in the room.

The jury didn’t know this but Stardust manager Eamon Butterly had gone to the High Court in the closing days of the inquests to try to stop them from returning a verdict of unlawful killing.

His lawyers had argued that such a verdict would be highly prejudicial to their client. There were only a limited number of people connected to what happened who could be associated with such a verdict, they argued, and could end up with blame being attributed to him.

Lawyers for the families had argued that inquests are not about assigning blame or innocence, saying that they are solely about the victims and determining why they died.

In the end, the High Court judge refused Butterly’s attempts to have unlawful killing removed as one of the five options and the jury were able to begin their deliberations.

The jury had many questions over the course of their 11 days of deliberation, particularly around what the implications would be if they did return a verdict of unlawful killing.

As a result, the tension in the room was real. No-one knew how this was going to go. A number of people connected with the inquests who spoke to The Journal in recent days said they could not predict the outcome.

As the foreman began to read out the cause of death for each of the victims, a member of staff in the room discreetly slid packets of tissues onto the tables where some of the family members were sitting.

When the verdict came, there was the briefest of pauses. And then, from the other side of the room to the jury, came the cheer. The most relief-filled this-is-what-we wanted-to-happen once-in-a-lifetime cheer.

It didn’t last long – less than ten seconds – but it was filled with all of the 43 years of waiting that these families have had to endure as a result of failure after failure by the Irish state to give them closure on what happened to their loved ones.

Almost as soon as it started, it stopped. There were still formalities that had to be said, boxes that had to be ticked. But people dabbed their eyes and held hands and took the biggest breath they had taken in years.

The jury had taken almost three weeks to come to a verdict, far longer than most of the inquest-watchers had predicted.

But then the normal rules of time never seemed to apply to the Stardust.

The fire itself was burned out in less than an hour. Most of it was gone by the time the first firemen arrived on the scene. “Normally on a building of that size you expect to be fighting a fire for four or five hours,” one fireman told the inquests.

The Tribunal investigating it, which decided that the ‘probable cause’ of the fire was arson, was announced the day after the fire, and had wrapped up within 16 months – a whirlwind by Irish tribunal standards. 

And it took these inquests 42 years to get off the ground, when they should have been done and dusted in 1981.

Dr Myra Cullinane, the empathetic and brilliant coroner who oversaw the inquests, paid tribute to the jury for their work over the past year, saying it was a “great act of public service”.

Several members of the jury cried as they received a standing ovation from the room, lasting for more than 30 seconds.

From the very start of the inquests process, Dr Cullinane had sought to keep the victims at the centre of the process. Now, as she brought it to a close, her final words were of them.

“It is their lives that we’ve sought to vindicate by means of these inquests.”

There’s a legal maxim that says that justice delayed is justice denied. The Stardust families had to wait 15,769 days for today’s verdict to be read out to the courtroom and to all the people watching on the Zoom meeting.

There’s another legal saying too: justice must not only be done but must also be seen to be done.

And finally, finally, finally, it has happened.

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