Stardust verdicts could have civil and criminal implications, legal observers say

Former Stardust manager made two unsuccessful High Court attempts to stop the jury being allowed come to verdicts of unlawful killing

The legal fallout from the verdicts handed down in the Stardust inquests on Thursday include potential civil and criminal developments, according to legal sources.

Gardaí will review the coroner’s report and assess whether there are reasons to reopen a criminal inquiry into any aspect of the 1981 tragedy in which 48 young people died.

The jury in the inquests returned verdicts of unlawful killing in relation to the disaster in which the young people died after a fire broke out due to an electrical fault and spread astonishingly quickly because of, among other factors, the dangerously flammable carpet tiles that had been put on the venue’s walls. Attempts to escape from the inferno were impeded by blocked, and in some cases locked, fire doors, the jury also found. No blame was ascribed to anyone in the verdicts.

No one is arguing that the fire was started deliberately but a person can be found guilty of manslaughter as a result of “gross negligence”. One of the issues the Garda – and if a report is sent to it, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions – may have to consider is whether any of the evidence from the inquests provides a basis for bringing charges against anyone for such negligence.


Among the issues that might arise are, along with the existence or otherwise of any evidence, the length of time that has elapsed since the fire, the fact that some people who might provide evidence are now dead, and the need for criminal charges to be proved “beyond reasonable doubt”.

Any charges brought would have to arise from the criminal law as it was at the time, and not any laws passed since the tragedy occurred.

In the wake of the tragedy, a tribunal of inquiry headed by Mr Justice Ronan Keane sharply criticised the Butterly family, who owned the Stardust, for their management of the venue, but controversially made a finding that the “more probable” cause of the fire was arson, a finding that was removed from the public record in 2009.

In 2022, before the inquests, Eamon Butterly, who managed the Stardust, went to the High Court and argued unsuccessfully that the jury at the inquests should not be able to make a finding of unlawful killing. (Juries at inquests can make other findings, such as death by misadventure, or return a narrative finding, which sets out the circumstances that led to the deaths.)

The coroner, Dr Myra Cullinane, argued that Coroners Acts do allow for findings of unlawful killing, and referred to the inquests of those who were killed in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 1974 (where no culprits have ever been identified).

In his judgment on the Butterly application, Mr Justice Charles Meehan said the law does allow for findings of unlawful killing but his finding was qualified. “A verdict of unlawful killing is available in circumstances where no person(s) is identified or identifiable.”

The judge noted the 1982 findings by the Keane tribunal of inquiry that there were serious errors and omissions in the design and supervision of the Stardust building involving breaches of regulations and guidelines and that Eamon Butterly and his father, Patrick Butterly, were “primarily responsible for these errors and omissions”.

Likewise, the tribunal found, the two men were responsible for errors in the management of the building, in particular the failure to maintain the exits in an unlocked and unobstructed condition. These errors and omissions “contributed significantly to the deaths and injuries which resulted from the fire”.

Mr Justice Meehan then quoted Dr Cullinane, the coroner, who had said the tribunal’s criticisms of “a variety of persons” went beyond any findings that would be available to the inquests she was presiding over. The judge continued: “However, it is clear that evidence will be given at the forthcoming inquests concerning the design and condition of the Stardust building, prior inspections and maintenance and the management of the Stardust. Should such evidence actually be given, a verdict of ‘unlawful killing’ could be problematic given the limited circumstances in which such a verdict can be brought in. It may be that the more detailed the evidence is on the circumstances of the fire the less permissible will be a verdict of unlawful killing.”

The judge refused an application that Mr Butterly’s legal costs for representation at the inquests should be paid, on the grounds that “a verdict of unlawful killing was available provided no person was identified or identifiable” and so “the concern of the applicant about his good name does not arise at an inquest hearing”.

At the end of the evidence at the inquests, but just prior to the jury beginning its deliberations, Eamon Butterly again went to the High Court to argue against the lawfulness of the jury being allowed make a finding of unlawful killing. In that instance, Mr Justice Tony O’Connor said he believed the coroner was in a good position to assess whether Mr Butterly or his father would only be identified by a verdict of unlawful killing. “During submissions, the court was informed that some 21 individuals (of which 18 were identified) had been mentioned at the inquest and may be associated with a verdict of unlawful killings.” The judge refused the application for a judicial review, saying the court was anxious not to cause further delay for the inquests.

Whether Mr Butterly will now, given that the inquests are over, try again to challenge the decision to allow the jury reach a verdict of unlawful killing is not clear. Efforts to get a comment from him were not successful. Some legal observers said one of the factors at play may be the extent to which the decision of the jury in the inquests leads to implications for Mr Butterly that weigh in favour of such a move. But given the intense emotion witnessed at the inquests on the day the verdicts were handed down, some sources said, any attempt to have the verdicts overturned in the courts would face very considerable opposition indeed.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent