Eamon Butterly, former manager of the Stardust nightclub in north Dublin where 48 people died in a 1981 fire, has said he made the decision to lock the that the venue’s exit doors should be locked until as late as midnight, but it was the head doorman’s idea.
At Dublin Coroner’s Court on Wednesday, the 78-year-old agreed that this contradicted evidence he had given previously, when he said the decision to lock the exits was taken by his head doorman, the late Thomas Kennan.
Fresh inquests are under way into the deaths of 48 people, aged 16 to 27, in a fire at the Artane nightclub in the early hours of February 14th, 1981.
On his fourth day in the witness box, Mr Butterly, whose family’s business Scotts Foods Ltd owned the Stardust, was cross-examined by Michael O’Higgins SC, for the families of 10 of the dead, for a third day.
He said he could not remember what had precipitated the policy of keeping exits locked. The inquests have heard from others that it was to stop people inside the nightclub letting their friends in for free.
Challenging this narrative, Mr O’Higgins put it to Mr Butterly that it had in fact been because doormen were caught letting people in. Mr Butterly said he had not heard this before the inquests.
However, Mr O’Higgins read a statement Mr Butterly made to gardaí in October 1981 in which he said two doormen had been sacked “on my instructions as they allowed in 20 to 25 people free of charge, most of whom had been barred from the Stardust”.
“I don’t remember that [statement],” said Mr Butterly.
Questioning Mr Butterly about whether it had been his decision to keep three of the six exits locked until between 11.30pm and midnight on disco nights, he brought him through what he had said in 1981.
In his statement in October 1981, he said locking the doors had been “forced on me by the fact a large number of people were getting in for free due to the actions of their friends who were opening exit doors from the inside”.
Asked on what basis he had asserted “large numbers were letting friends in”, Mr Butterly said he had been told this.
“Maybe the reason why you were saying this to the guards was to deflect responsibility away from the Stardust and to say it was the fault of the people getting in for free,” said Mr O’Higgins.
“No,” he replied, adding that the policy had been introduced by him and the security staff.
“Is that a shift from what you told the jury last Thursday when you said it was all Mr Kennan’s initiative?”
“It was Mr Kennan’s initiative,” said Mr Butterly.
“You are still saying that?”
Mr Butterly’s evidence to the 1981 tribunal was read to the inquest, in which he said: “I made the decision myself... well, with Mr Kennan and Mr [Leo] Doyle.”
Mr O’Higgins said Mr Butterly had been “owning it 100 per cent” at that point.
“Yes,” he replied.
“So, given that at the tribunal you owned the decision 100 per cent... why are you telling this jury here the exact opposite?”
“I made the decision with Mr Kennan and Mr Doyle.”
“You were absolutely adamant last Thursday that this was all Mr Kennan. It was his initiative. Have you any comment?”
“I have no comment to make.”
Coroner Dr Myra Cullinane asked Mr Butterly which evidence he “stood over under oath”.
“The ones that I made here [that it was Mr Kennan’s initiative].”
“Notwithstanding... what you said before in 1981?”
Mr O’Higgins asked him: “You are sticking with what you [said] last Thursday.”
“That’s what I believed last Thursday.”
“Do you still believe it today?”
“It is contradictory all right.”
When asked to pick one or the other, he said: “I would have to pick the one at the tribunal... But it was Tom Kennan’s idea.”