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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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  7 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan] These include a consultation with a chief fire officer, the use of carpet tiles in the walls, the locking and chaining of exit doors and their obstruction, the use of timber partitions and the failure to allocate specific duties to staff in the event of a fire. Keane rightly concluded in paragraph 9.28 that "the owners did not take due precautions for the safety of the public, the performers or the employees". Dublin Corporation is also severely criticised for its failure to properly inspect the building, as is the Department of the Environment for its failure to make building regulations under the planning Acts. Serious shortcomings in the Garda and Department of Justice forensic examination were included in conclusion 9.64 of the Keane report. Keane found samples of material that might have been crucial were not taken and important tests were not carried out. It was also clear that Mr. Eamon Butterly, the owner, and several of his staff seriously obstructed the Garda investigations. It beggars belief on revisiting chapter 9 of the Keane report, the conclusions and recommendations, that no one has ever been brought to account for the Stardust tragedy. The owner, Mr. Eamon Butterly, was severely criticised for his action yet no prosecution was ever pursued. On reading those conclusions again, one would never expect for the final outcome to be suspected arson.

  On several occasions in Dáil Éireann, especially in the lead up to the 20th and 25th anniversaries of the disaster, on behalf of the Stardust committee I outlined the many reasons why so many aspects of Mr. Justice Keane's report needed to be disregarded and I called the report’s conclusions "untrustworthy, unfair and unsafe". In a Dáil speech of February 2006, I highlighted the conflict of interest in the appointment of the Fire Research Station of the UK Department of the Environment as the expert adviser to the tribunal because it was working at that time for Dublin Corporation. I spoke about the inclusion of the untrue statement in section 8.92 of the tribunal report that "the practice of locking and chaining the exit doors until midnight at the earliest on 'disco' night was not known to the Corporation". I informed the House a number of times that I had been contacted by a city council official who explained that he had reported to officials in the building control section of Dublin Corporation more than three weeks before the catastrophe that exit doors had been locked late into the night at a function. There were also reports that Dublin Corporation held a staff party in the Stardust the previous Christmas of 1980 and that the then Lord Mayor was present. The tribunal report concluded there was no professional supervision of the electrical system in the reconstruction and fitting out of the Scotts Food factory which became the Stardust. However, the Keane report completely disregarded compelling evidence relating to the electrical system and the new research totally challenged the tribunal’s findings. Testimony of a heat surge from the ceilings of the north and west alcoves given to Mr. Justice Keane by disco-goer Linda Bishop and staff member Leo Doyle clearly pointed to the ignition and spread of the fire from the lamp room-storeroom area in the roof space. The evidence given to Keane in 1981-1982 by external eyewitnesses like Robert O’Callaghan and Alan Buffini also supported that conclusion.

  The conclusions of Keane were seriously challenged and we believe demolished by outstanding private investigations carried out in the years preceding the 20th anniversary of the disaster in 2001 and up to 2007. Excellent investigative work by two remarkable young local journalists, Tony McCullagh, now editor of the Northside People, and Neil Fetherstonhaugh, was put into the public domain through their 2001 book, They Never Came Home: The Stardust Story. The title references Christy Moore's famous song about this terrible tragedy. That book first undermined the whole structure of Keane’s conclusions with its highlighting of serious electrical problems in the roof of the Stardust and the failure by the owners in preceding weeks and months to address this incredibly dangerous situation. In 2004, a distinguished local scientist, Ms Geraldine Foy, also carried out further investigations and discovered the existence of a storeroom in the roof space packed with flammable liquids which was beside the lamp room. In new evidence, Ms Foy demonstrated that maps showing a basement in the Stardust were incorrect and also drew attention to the first witnesses of the fire who were outside the building and saw flames coming from the roof. In 2006, Ms Rita O’Reilly and her colleagues in an RTE "Prime Time Investigates" anniversary programme cast further profound question marks over Mr. Justice Keane’s findings.

  The Stardust relatives and victims committee finally submitted a dossier entitled "Nothing But the Truth" to the Department of Justice in 2007, which documented discoveries of clear evidence of defective electrical and heating systems in the building, as well as the discovery of the existence of the first floor storeroom full of flammable cleaning liquids and new eyewitness accounts which strongly pointed to the origins of the fire in the roof space and not, as Keane had believed, in the seats of the closed-off west alcove. This dossier also listed the contents of the stored items in the roof space, all of which were highly flammable and included 45 five-gallon drums of cleaning fluids and other liquids. All of these concerted efforts over many years put public pressure on the Government to re-examine the findings of the Keane report. The then Bertie Ahern-led Government eventually appointed Mr. Paul Coffey, SC, now Mr. Justice Coffey, to carry out an independent examination in 2008. Mr. Ahern lived in an estate just across the road from the Stardust. The final Coffey report was presented to the House in January 2009 and led to the correcting of the public record in the Dáil and Seanad that arson was the probable cause of the tragic fire and loss of so many young lives. There was great disappointment in 2009 that Coffey did not call for a new public inquiry in the final version of his report presented to the Houses. Freedom of information requests from the Stardust committee discovered that the original copy of the Coffey report sent to the Government on 10 December 2008 differed on a number of very important elements from the final report brought before the Houses in January 2009. Paragraph 5.13 of the Coffey report of 10 December states:

I accept that this is profoundly unsatisfactory to the survivors and the bereaved. I also accept the Committee’s submission that such was the scale of the disaster that it has become a matter of communal if not national history to an extent that engages a public interest in ensuring that the public record of what happened is factually accurate and established by evidence. I further accept that a new inquiry is necessary if it is the only way of placing on the public record a finding that is based on evidence.

Mr. Coffey’s original finding of 10 December 2008 is certainly now a necessity. The slur of suggested criminality on the young people who attended the Stardust that tragic night was removed in the Government motion of 3 February 2009, which stated that Dáil Éireann acknowledged "that the cause of the fire is unknown, the original finding of arson is a mere hypothetical explanation and is not demonstrated by any evidence and that none of the persons present on the night of the fire can be held responsible for it". It was 28 years after the tragedy and there was still no concrete conclusion as to who was responsible for the deaths of these 48 young people. Mr. Justice Paul Coffey’s report is striking in the manner in which it builds a powerful case supported by witnesses for the Stardust committee such as former fire chief, Mr. Tony Gillick, that the fire began in the roof space.

  I note media reports that the wording of the final part of the motion regarding the Government’s engagement with the Stardust relatives and victims committee is rejected by the Tánaiste yet this related specifically to the committee’s attempts to meet directly with the Taoiseach following his promises made to them on former Deputy Terence Flanagan’s campaign trail in 2011. I acknowledge the Tánaiste met the committee personally in 2014. There were great hopes from that meeting. I also acknowledge that she appointed Mr. David Gilbride to be a point of contact for the committee. Mr. Gilbride sent a report in November 2015 querying the committee's evidence. The Stardust committee withdrew from the process with the Department on 8 December 2016 because Mr. Gilbride repeatedly informed its members their new evidence had not reached the standard of reasonable doubt on the Keane conclusions. As fire expert, Mr. Robin Knox, has stated, only a new commission can establish such a standard.

  In previous speeches, I referenced the Widgery and Saville tribunals and the Hillsborough inquests and noted there always seems to be a great reluctance in our legal system to create a new precedent by revisiting the work of a tribunal. In the British legal system, which is so close to our own, the Government came forward with the Saville inquiry to re-examine the Widgery whitewash and vindicate the people of Derry. It revisited the Hillsborough disaster in which 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death. The valiant campaigns by the relatives of the victims of Bloody Sunday in 1972 and Hillsborough in 1989 very much resemble the indefatigable and brave campaign for justice of the Stardust relatives committee. While the courts will admit fresh evidence in civil and criminal appeal cases, the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Acts 1921 to 2004 do not provide an appeal mechanism, yet there are appeal mechanisms in investigative legislation such as the Railway Safety Act 2005 and the Merchant Shipping (Investigation of Marine Casualties) Act 2000. Given the UK precedents, we should be able to come forward with a new commission of investigation. Today’s motion has widespread support in the House. A member of the Government sitting opposite, Deputy Finian McGrath, shared a Topical Issue debate with me in the Thirty-first Dáil demanding a new commission of investigation, not more reports or going back to eminent legal people. We already had that with Mr. Justice Coffey.

  During the 2011 general election, the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, visited Coolock and committed to a new commission of inquiry. The inclusion of the establishment of the commission of investigation dependent on the production of new evidence - the oft-repeated mantra - featured in A Programme for a Partnership Government.

  The motion before us today is in the name of the Independents 4 Change, our technical group, and AAA-PBP. I thank my 12 colleagues in both groups. Deputies McDonald and Mitchell and Sinn Féin are very supportive of such a motion. I am also delighted to have a copy of a letter from the Fianna Fáil leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, to Ms Antoinette Keegan of 27 March 2014 in which Deputy Martin commits Fianna Fáil to support a new inquiry under the 2004 Act. I also thank the Social Democrats for their support and I hope the Green Party will also support the motion. I have always received great support in the past from the Labour Party on this matter. I believe there is an emerging consensus at last in the House to bring closure to the still-grieving families and friends of the young people who never came home that night by approving the motion to establish a new commission of investigation into the Stardust tragedy.

  The Government seems to be coming forward with an amendment to the effect that an eminent legal person will be appointed to review the new evidence and arguments.

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