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Establishment of Commission of Investigation into the Stardust Tragedy: Motion [Private Members] (Continued)

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 936 No. 1

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan] Mr. Justice Coffey already fulfilled that function in 2008-2009 and recommended the establishment of a commission of investigation in his December 2008 report. The amendment seems to be another instance of this Government kicking the can down the road when it comes to important issues. After 36 long and often grief-stricken years, the Stardust victims and their relatives need final closure and justice. I urge the House to support the motion.

Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan: Information on Maureen O'Sullivan Zoom on Maureen O'Sullivan The motion put forward by Deputy Broughan is very simple in nature. I want to acknowledge his work and that of the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, because they have been steady and persistent voices in respect of this matter.

The fact is that, 35 years on, those bereaved by what happened in the Stardust still have questions but they do not have answers. It is ironic the Stardust tragedy happened on St. Valentine's night, which is the night associated with love and romance, not death and tragedy. I remember that weekend very vividly. I recall the stories coming out and the fact that the pain and anguish were intensified as the weekend progressed and more details emerged. I also remember having attended events in the Stardust, so I could very easily visualise what had happened. The grief was compounded by the fact the victims were all from the same area and that there were families who lost more than one member.

I dislike the word "closure" because it seems to suggest there can be an end to the grief at the loss of a loved one and I do not think that can happen. However, there is no doubt that if family and friends have answers to their questions and have a full picture of what happened, it does ease the grieving process. That has not happened in the case of the Stardust. Unfortunately, we have a poor record in this country when it comes to establishing and revealing the truth. How long did families and individuals wait in the context of the Magdalen laundries? The families of the victims and survivors of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings over 40 years ago are still waiting for answers.

The Stardust tragedy was the worst of its kind in the history of the State, with 48 young people losing their lives in appalling circumstances. We can imagine those young people struggling to escape and their consternation at perhaps getting to a fire escape to find chains around the bars. We can imagine the failure of the lighting adding to the panic and confusion inside. The windows were not an option because there were bars and blades around them. The rescue services outside were frustrated because they could hear and see what was going on but they could not reach those inside. It is important to acknowledge all the work of the rescue services.

Afterwards, it was a question of finding out what happened and who was responsible. We know of the Coolock Garda investigation, the tribunal of inquiry and the issue of arson, which allowed the owners to pursue a claim for quite hefty compensation. The "Prime Time" programme in 2006 cast doubts on some of those findings. That was followed by Mr. Justice Paul Coffey's independent examination, which found no evidence of the fire being started deliberately but identified breaches of fire safety regulations. We know there were alterations to the initial Coffey report, which, in itself, necessitates a full and independent inquiry for the relatives.

Listening to the relatives, it is clear their grief is raw - it is as if it only happened last Friday. We think of how long it took to get to the truth of what happened in Derry on Bloody Sunday and at Hillsborough. In both situations, we also know the relief for the relatives when the facts were revealed. In the Derry case, there was the added bonus for the relatives when they received an apology from David Cameron.

The families have never given up, which is a great credit to them, and they have recent research which shows there is new evidence. A researcher has listened to the witnesses who were both inside and outside the Stardust, has looked at inaccuracies in the map of the building that was used at the tribunal and has examined the 999 calls. There are many questions.

The motion notes that the Government was looking for new evidence and I think that has now been brought forward. The relatives handed in a list to the Attorney General's office a couple of months ago and they are still awaiting a response. Given all of the inconsistences and questions regarding the original findings and the changes in the findings, the only way forward is a comprehensive and independent investigation. I am aware of the talks people have been having with the relatives and I know that the Government amendment states that new evidence will be assessed by an independent person who has the trust of the families. I also understand that, if that independent person confirms this new evidence, there will be a commission of investigation. However, that cannot be a further delaying tactic in regard to establishing the truth. Mr. Justice Coffey's report in 2008 indicated the need for an inquiry. For me, it is not a matter of what anybody in this Chamber wants. It is what the families want, what they deserve and what they are owed. It is a matter of national interest and not just for the people of north Dublin.

Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): Information on Frances Fitzgerald Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “misgivings around previous investigations” and substitute the following:
“- there has been important work conducted by individual researchers on a voluntary basis over many years into the causes of the tragedy; and

- the Programme for a Partnership Government specifically states that 'full regard will be had to any new evidence which emerges which would be likely to definitely establish the cause of the fire at Stardust';
calls on the Government to meet with the Stardust Relatives’ and Victims Committee regarding the new and updated evidence they have uncovered since reviewing Judge Keane’s Report of the Tribunal of Inquiry on the fire at the Stardust, Artane, Dublin in 2006, to have that new and updated evidence assessed urgently by an independent person who has the trust of the families; and

if the independent assessment confirms the existence of new evidence, calls on the Government to immediately establish a Commission of Investigation into the Stardust Tragedy of 1981.”

I thank Deputy Broughan for raising this important matter. As has been said, the events that occurred at the Stardust in the early hours of St. Valentine's Day 1981 are ones that have lived long in the memories of those of us who were old enough to recognise the tragedy that was unfolding before us as we woke that morning. The scale of the tragedy as it emerged was overwhelming. Across the country, thousands of people, young and not so young, went out on a Friday night to dance, celebrate and enjoy themselves. They said goodbye to their loved ones, told them they would see them later and made plans for the following day. They did and said all the things that we do in such routine circumstances. Every parent worries when their child, of whatever age, is heading out for the night. We tell them to mind themselves and to be careful, but we never think that something like this could happen.

  Forty-eight young people lost their lives. Many more were seriously injured and live with those scars, both physical and psychological, to this day. We can only imagine the alarm of the families whose loved ones were out that night as word of the fire emerged, the panic they must have felt and the torment they went through as they sought out news of their loved ones. For some, there was relief; for others, the torture of desperately trying to keep hope while they awaited news; but, for so many, there was only despair.

  Tragedies such as this, and thankfully they are few, impact on a wider community than just those present on the night. The impact on the victims and their families and friends, on all those caught up in this terrible event, cannot be forgotten. It has not been forgotten. Members of these Houses have in the past spoken of their memories of these events and of people they knew who were injured and who lost their lives. The Stardust fire is part of our communal history. It is right that it is not forgotten and that we continue, in this House, to discuss and consider any measure that may address the terrible legacy of the fire.

  Immediately after the fire, a tribunal of inquiry was established. The tribunal reported in June 1982. Deputies are familiar with the report's findings, which were highly critical of the building's owners, the fire safety measures in place, the means of escape and the response of the emergency services. Deputy Broughan has gone into much of the detail. Over the following years, the findings of the tribunal, particularly as they related to the finding of probable arson, were the source of great dissatisfaction for many victims. Concerns also emerged as to whether the real cause of the fire had been identified and the adequacy of the investigations that were carried out.

  Throughout the first half of the last decade, the committee representing victims and their relatives communicated these concerns to Government. The committee's submissions also advanced an alternative hypothesis as to the cause of the fire. Following this, the Government of the day agreed, in 2008, to appoint an independent legal expert, Mr. Justice Paul Coffey, to examine the case made by the committee. His report was published in January 2009 and dealt in some detail with the findings of the original tribunal report. Its key conclusion was that, "the Tribunal's conclusion as to the cause of the fire cannot be demonstrated to be objectively justifiable", and that the tribunal's finding of fact that the fire was probably started deliberately was on its true construction a hypothetical finding only. The report's conclusion that the finding of arson in the original tribunal report was hypothetical only and that no one present could be held responsible addressed a long-standing stigma of suggested criminality that some of the victims and bereaved felt hung over all who had been in attendance that night.

  The report also considered the hypothesis put forward by the committee as to the cause of the fire but concluded it had not identified any evidence which could establish its cause. It also found that, "the new and other evidence relied upon by the committee at its highest merely establishes that the fire began in the roof space but does not establish its point of origin or cause".

  Following that, the Government of the day in 2009 moved motions in both the Dáil and the Seanad which were supported on an all-party basis in both Houses. The motions acknowledged, "the view of Mr. Coffey that to establish a new Tribunal to investigate the cause of the fire in the absence of any identified evidence would not be in the public interest". That was accepted at that time in an all-party motion in this House.

  While the findings of the independent legal examination were widely welcomed at the time, subsequently, some family members raised concerns about the process and its outcome. On my appointment as Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, I met with Ms Antoinette Keegan, Ms Geraldine Foy, a researcher and adviser to the committee, and the committee's solicitor, Mr. Paul O'Sullivan, to hear at first hand their concerns. Following that meeting, I appointed an official in my Department to liaise with the committee. There has been significant engagement with Ms Antoinette Keegan, Ms Geraldine Foy and Mr. Robin Knox, another researcher associated with the committee, through that mechanism. I am of the view that significant progress was made in 2015 with collaborative efforts between them and the Department, resulting in the drawing up a document outlining the case as they presented it.

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