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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 Jim O'Callaghan: Information on Jim O'Callaghan Zoom on Jim O'Callaghan] It is important to see where we are before going on to consider what is best for the families and what can be achieved for them.

The report of the tribunal of inquiry reached a finding that arson was the cause of the fire, but that finding has been discredited and can no longer stand. There were innumerable campaigns by the families which led to the appointment of Mr. Paul Coffey in 2008/2009. Although there have been criticisms of his report, it is important to note that he found that the finding of arson in the tribunal's report had been based on a hypothesis and was not justified in considering facts produced in evidence before the tribunal. In the aftermath of the report of Mr. Coffey, this House set the record straight on the Keane report by unanimously agreeing a motion on 3 February 2009 that acknowledged that the cause of the fire was unknown and that the original finding of arson in the report of the tribunal of inquiry report was merely a hypothetical explanation not demonstrated by any evidence and that none of the persons present on the night of the fire could be held responsible for it. That was the mechanism the State used to ensure the finding made in the report of the tribunal of inquiry could be changed. The Official Report recorded that there was no evidence which supported a finding that the fire had been caused by arson.

The work of the families and those assisting them has brought them to the objective of trying to identify what caused the fire. The report of the tribunal of inquiry got it wrong; the Coffey report got it right when it stated there was no basis in fact for the finding that the fire had been caused by arson, but it could not identify the cause. The families are entitled to - I can understand why they want to - establish the cause of the fire on that fateful night. If there is new evidence which supports a finding that the fire was caused by a certain activity or that can lead to a conclusion on how it started, a commission of investigation should be established. The proposal made in the Government's amendment is that the evidence should be assessed to see whether it can stand up before a commission of investigation. It is important that the families be aware that commissions of investigation can be cold and impersonal. I do not want and no Member here wants the families to leave here believing that through the establishment of a commission of investigation they will be able to identify the cause of the fire. A commission of investigation would only reach a finding based on evidence properly admissible before a tribunal of inquiry not dissimilar from the rules in a court of law. It is important to assess and identify the evidence that is said to be new and whether it is sufficient to reach a finding by a commission of investigation that the fire was caused in a particular way. The objective of any commission of investigation is to establish the truth. If an inquiry is established I hope it will be able to identify the cause of the fire. However, I do not want the families to leave here believing a commission of investigation would result in the tragedy and unfairness to them being rectified because at the end of the process the commission might not be able to establish the cause of the fire. If there is sufficient strong evidence, it would be able to do so. The families should be aware that a commission is cold and impersonal and will only reach findings based on facts which are properly admitted in evidence before it.

Many Members of this House agree that if we are to establish a commission of investigation, decisions should be made promptly. It is unfair to the families to drag it out for much longer. If there is to be a scoping exercise to appraise the new evidence, that must be done promptly in order to ensure any commission of investigation is established in the very near future. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan is correct to say the Saville and Hillsborough inquiries were able to examine the findings of previous inquiries. We should not underestimate the task facing any individual who is asked to produce a finding of fact on an event which happened 36 years ago. That would be very difficult. Findings of fact can be based only on evidence given by individuals who were there or documents which were produced at the time. It is important to bring this matter to a conclusion quickly and that we do not prolong the families' uncertainty as to whether there will be an investigation. For that reason, we need to quickly and independently assess the new evidence to see whether it would justify the establishment of a commission of investigation.

Deputy Seán Haughey: Information on Seán Haughey Zoom on Seán Haughey I thank Deputy Thomas P. Broughan for raising this matter and his comprehensive review of the tragedy. The fire in the Stardust nightclub in 1981 was an horrific tragedy. The loss of life and widespread injuries caused by it stand as one of the greatest tragedies in modern Irish history. Of the 700 young people in attendance that night, 48 never came home and 128 were seriously injured. Devastated survivors and families, together with the local community, all struggled to come to terms with the scale of the disaster. I was 19 years old at the time of the fire and had attended various cabarets at the Stardust nightclub. I think of the tragedy every time I drive along the Kilmore Road and on Valentine's Day and every time I see or hear a reflection of the 1980s. I have no doubt that all those who were caught up in the tragedy think about it every day of their lives.

A tribunal of inquiry set up at the time made several recommendations and their implementation led to a complete transformation of fire safety and protection laws. The view was that everything should be done to ensure such a fire would never happen again. The finding that the cause of the fire was probably arson caused widespread hurt to the families affected. In 2008 Paul Coffey's report concluded that the finding that it had probably been caused by arson was merely hypothetical. Motions were passed in the Dáil and the Seanad to the effect that there was no evidence that the fire had been started deliberately and that the cause of the fire remained unknown. In addition, Mr. Coffey found that none of the victims of the fire, or persons present on the night, could be held responsible for it. He also found that the public interest would not be served by establishing a further inquiry. I have, however, read media reports which suggest previous drafts of his report had been watered down and that he might, in fact, have suggested there was a need for a new inquiry. I have no knowledge of this and think the matter needs to be fully explained by the Department of Justice and Equality.

As a local public representative since 1985, I have worked with the Stardust relatives and victims committee on several issues.

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