Stardust families demand new inquiry

The families say the first version of an independent inquiry report was ‘altered’ before publication

Tue, May 7, 2013, 11:47

The families of some of the 48 young people who died in the 1981 Stardust disaster are demanding a fresh inquiry into the cause or causes of the fire.

They say the report of the independent examination into their calls for a fresh inquiry that was carried out in 2008 was “significantly altered . . . and rewritten” before publication.

They are demanding the publication of Paul Coffey SC’s initial report of his independent examination and also of a Garda report written following an examination of evidence they had submitted to the Department of Justice in 2004.

While the report submitted to the government in December 2008 by Mr Coffey accepted a new inquiry may be necessary, the report published by the government in January 2009 said only that the public record should be corrected.

Mr Coffey’s report, submitted to the government on December 10th, 2008, states: “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.”

The report published by the government in January 2009 states: there is a public interest “in ensuring that the public record of what happened is factually accurate and established by evidence. It seems to me that the terms of the resolutions under which the tribunal was established by the Oireachtas require nothing less.”

The 2008 report has been released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act.

In 2008, the government established an inquiry into the case made by families of the 48 young people who died in the Stardust nightclub in Artane in February 1981 for a fresh inquiry into how the fire started, to be chaired by Mr Coffey. The families were aggrieved since the original tribunal of inquiry in 1981, chaired by Mr Justice Ronan Keane, had concluded arson was the probable cause of the inferno and that it probably started on a seat in the west alcove.

New evidence
In 2004 the families submitted a dossier of new evidence to the Department of Justice in their campaign for a fresh inquiry. Among the issues they raised were the accuracy of the original Garda map of the Stardust and the likelihood that the source of the fire was in fact the Stardust’s roof-space.

Mr Coffey heard unsworn evidence over three days in September 2008 and submitted his report on December 10th, 2008, with a cover letter, seen by The Irish Times , stating: “I have completed my examination of the Stardust Victims Committee’s case for a reopened inquiry into the Stardust fire disaster and herewith enclose a report of my findings, conclusions and recommendations.”

The report was resubmitted to the government on January 7th, 2009, with a cover letter from Mr Coffey stating: “I have completed my examination of the Stardust Victims Committee’s case for a reopened inquiry into the Stardust fire disaster and further to my previous enclosure of the 8th December, 2008, I enclose herewith my final report.”

The report was published by the government on January 23rd, 2009, following a three-day sit-in at Government Buildings by relatives of the Stardust victims over delays in its publication.

On February 3rd, 2009, the government formally corrected the public record to state there was no evidence the Stardust fire was started deliberately and the cause of the fire was unknown. It was welcomed by the families.

However, since then the existence of the earlier version of the Coffey report, which has not been published, has come to light. According to Paul O’Sullivan, solicitor for the families, there are “over 70 highly significant changes” in the second report, which have had the effect of “neutering” and watering down Mr Coffey’s original conclusions and recommendations.

“The changes are hugely significant, altering the substance of the report away from the families’ clear case for a fresh inquiry. Criticism of Keane’s conclusions are watered down, while Coffey’s original statements that findings supporting the families’ case had been ‘prime facie’ established are changed to ‘arguably’ established. The changes steer the reader away from the conclusion that there is evidence for a fresh inquiry, to the conclusion there probably isn’t.”

Final report
A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice said: “Mr Coffey’s draft report has been released under FOI but the report received on January 7th [2009] is Mr Coffey’s final report to the government and, as is normal practice, only the final version of the report has been published. There are no plans to publish the earlier draft.”

She added: “While it is accepted that the materiality of the changes made is ultimately a matter of interpretation, the basic fact is that it is the report of January 7th which represents Mr Coffey’s final and entirely independent advice to the government on this matter.”

She said no attempt was made “to influence or amend” Mr Coffey’s report. “He asked to be allowed make amendments before the report was regarded as final so as to ensure its clarity and accuracy. The government of the day clearly had to rely on his final report rather than on any earlier draft which he saw fit to amend.”

The families also contend a letter from Garda headquarters dated February 14th, 2008, was sent to the independent inquiry of which Mr Coffey became chairman. It refers to an examination by a Det Supt Gallagher (who the letter said had since retired) of the evidence the families had submitted to the Department of Justice in 2004. The families say they were told of neither the existence of this Garda examination nor its findings, which they say were crucial.

The letter, signed by a Supt FW Healy, refers to contents of the report by Det Supt Gallagher, which appear to support the families’ contention that the original Garda map of the Stardust was flawed and that there was no basement in the nightclub. The map of the Stardust drawn by the Garda mapper in 1981 in the aftermath of the fire, seen by The Irish Times , clearly denotes a “basement”.

No basement
The families had always contended there was no basement and this map was flawed. This flaw, apparently acknowledged in this letter, has not been acknowledged to the families.

This, they say, is crucial to their argument that the fire started in the roof-space. The absence of a basement – a key component in their argument for a new inquiry – is something they had not been able to prove.

The letter, a copy of which is held by The Irish Times , says: “As you are aware An Garda Síochána is disposed to providing a copy of Det Supt Gallagher’s report to . . . [the chairman of] the examination to assist him. However, its confidential nature would require that it would not be made available to any third party.”

Asked to comment on the letter, the Department of Justice spokeswoman said: “The position is that Mr Coffey would have been aware of the matter in question and it was for him to assess as he saw appropriate in the context of his independent examination.” Mr Coffey said he could not comment on the report as it was the property of the Government.

Asked about the issues in the Dáil earlier this year by Labour Party TD Tommy Broughan, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter said: “Mr Coffey made a number of amendments to the report and submitted his final report on January 7th. These amendments were made by Mr Coffey to ensure the report’s clarity and accuracy but did not result in materially different findings or recommendations.”