Inferno in club took 48 lives but no one has been charged
Arson ruled out by second report into Stardust disaster but no conclusion made on cause
The aftermath of the Stardust fire in Artane, Dublin, in 1981. Photograph: Tom Lawlor
The inferno that engulfed the Stardust ballroom in the early hours of February 14th, 1981, was one of worst disasters in the history of the State. Of the 841 people in the Artane nightclub that night, 48 young people died, 241 were physically injured and all witnessed scenes and experienced terrors that continue to traumatise not only them but their families and the wider community.
No one has been charged in relation to the Stardust disaster. No cause of the fire has been established. No one has apologised to the families. It continues to cast a long shadow over the working-class communities of Artane, Coolock, Donnycarney and Kilmore in north Dublin from where the young people who lost their lives came.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire the then taoiseach, Charles Haughey – in whose constituency it happened – established a tribunal of inquiry under the chairmanship of Mr Justice Ronan Keane.
It sat within three weeks of the fire, concluded in November 1981 and published its report in 1982. In it Mr Justice Keane was critical of Dublin Corporation (the forerunner of Dublin City Council) for failures in relation to the enforcement of building regulations and planning inspections. It criticised the Department of the Environment for inadequate fire prevention services, and also criticised the Butterly family who owned the Stardust for “recklessly dangerous practice” when it emerged some of the fire exits had been locked on the night of February 13th.
Crucially, it found the cause of the fire was “probably” arson and had almost certainly started on a seat in the west alcove of the ballroom. The families always rejected the arson finding, besmirching as it was to their dead children.
They campaigned to have the Keane report overturned and to have a new inquiry established. A key belief of campaigners was also that the fire had started in the roof-space of the Stardust, where large quantities of flammable cleaning materials, plastic cutlery, glasses and drums of cooking oil were stored.
In February 2006, RTÉ’s Prime Time broadcast a report casting doubt on the tribunal findings, drawing particularly on new eye-witness accounts and a map of the Stardust building drawn for the tribunal after the fire.
The programme highlighted a reference on the map to a “basement”, which the families argued had not existed.
In 2008 the government appointed Paul Coffey SC to conduct an independent examination of new evidence to ascertain whether a new inquiry was necessary.
Mr Coffey’s report was submitted to government in January 2009 and published on February 3rd. It concluded the 1981 finding of arson was unsafe but also suggested there was insufficient new evidence to come to a safe conclusion on the actual cause of the fire.
On publication the government moved to correct the public record in the Dáil and removed the “arson” finding. The families welcomed this.
However, the emergence of an earlier version of the Coffey report submitted in December 2008, which the families say leans towards recommending a new inquiry, has damaged the trust of some in the published Coffey report.
They have also since come into possession of a letter, from Garda headquarters to the Coffey inquiry in 2008, which refers to flaws in the original Garda map of the Stardust, which the families say now proves there was no basement in the Stardust.
This letter was not revealed at the time of the inquiry and, say the families, is crucial new evidence supporting the contention they have made for more than two decades – that the fire started in the Stardust’s roof-space.
It is further understood that a key issue now being examined by gardaí in Coolock is whether evidence given at the Keane tribunal, relating to the layout of the Stardust, was inaccurate.