A former salesman, who sourced carpet tiles for the walls of the Stardust nightclub where 48 people perished in a fire in 1981, has denied greater priority was put on securing the contract for the tiles in 1978, than on their fire safety.
Declan Conway said he took “great offence” at the suggestion by counsel for the bereaved families. He was giving evidence at the inquests into the deaths of 48 young people in the fire in the early hours of February 14th, 1981. Fresh inquests into the deaths, ordered by then attorney general Séamus Woulfe in 2019, are under way at Dublin Coroner’s Court.
Simon Mills, counsel for the Dublin coroner, intervened on a number of occasions over the manner of questions by Brenda Campbell KC, for 10 of the bereaved families, questioning whether her line of examination was appropriate in inquests.
On Thursday Mr Conway had told how he worked for floor-coverings specialists Bernard McLoughlin Ltd in 1978. He had identified carpet tiles from a UK company, Illingsworth, which Stardust manager Eamonn Butterly was interested in using to line the walls of the venue. Mr Butterly would not order them until a fire safety certificate was issued, to meet planning conditions.
The 1981 Keane tribunal into the fire heard the fire spread rapidly along the walls.
Mr Conway said Illingsworth provided a fire safety certificate, knowing the tiles would be used on the walls, which satisfied Mr Butterly, and he won the contract.
On Friday Ms Campbell read evidence directly contradicting Mr Conway’s account, given by Illingsworth’s secretary Graham Whitehead at the 1981 tribunal, in which he had said Illingsworth had not “in any instance” recommended carpet tiles for walls. “No, we have never produced such an article,” he told the tribunal.
Mr Conway disagreed strongly on Friday, saying: “Let’s be quite specific here. I went to the UK with the intention of getting the contract for the [floor covering]. During my visit there I saw promotional documentation that was going to be put in a brochure showing carpet tiles [for walls].”
When Ms Campbell asked why Mr Whitehead might have given a different account, coroner Dr Myra Cullinane interjected, saying Mr Conway was “not required before an inquest to give his opinion on another witness before another forum. He has given his evidence. There is conflict with the evidence you’ve put before him. We are not going to resolve this.”
Mr Mills later added: “Whether or not they [carpet tiles] were suitable for use on the walls is a matter that ultimately falls to be determined by others... There is only so much the jury should be required to hear about this dispute [between Mr Conway’s and Mr Whitehead’s recollections].”
Ms Campbell said she “must be entitled to explore the credibility of this witness”. She cited further 1981 evidence suggesting the “fire certificate” Mr Conway secured was not in fact a fire safety certificate; the carpet tiles chosen were being phased out by Illingsworth and reduced to clear; and that the order was placed before permission to use them was clear.
She asked: “Was the priority to get a cheap, job-end lot?”
“Excuse me. I find that very offensive,” said Mr Conway. “Very offensive. I have come here and I have told you everything I know to be the truth and there was no question we were getting a job-lot at the time... It was never an issue that these were job-end tiles. Never.”
Fiona Doherty, giving evidence by Zoom, had attended a concert at the Stardust a month before the fire. She described seeing continuous sparks in a void in the roof which continued for up to 20 minutes.
“I was extremely worried. I was worried a fire was going to break out. I spent more time watching the ceiling than I did watching the concert and I actually wanted to leave the concert.” Her friends did not want to leave so she stayed.
Evidence from a waitress at the Stardust, Catriona Ross, was read into the record. Among her duties were to “check that the emergency exits were locked” and to go to the storeroom “at the top of the steps at the end of the north alcove”.
The contents of the storeroom included “between 40 and 50 five-gallon drums of cooking oil; between 20 and 30 five-gallon drums of cleaning fluids; several drums of floor polish, several drums of detergents; dozens of boxes of plastic glasses” as well as large quantities of toilet rolls, plastic cutlery and paper plates, she said.