Stardust State apology: ‘We failed you when you needed us the most’ - Taoiseach Simon Harris tells Dáil

Families of 48 young people who died in 1981 fire had long called for an official State apology and were invited to the Dáil on Tuesday


The day in brief

Taoiseach Simon Harris on Tuesday issued a State apology to the families of the Stardust fire tragedy, more than 40 years after the blaze ripped through the nightclub in north Dublin.

Speaking in the Dáil on Tuesday afternoon, Mr Harris apologised “unreservedly” to the families of the 48 victims.

“The families gathered here today and their loved ones who perished, the family members who are no longer with us, and all those who suffered horrific injuries were the victims of a mass tragedy.

“Instead, it is to our great and eternal shame that far from the warm embrace of a caring State, the Stardust family experienced a cold shoulder, a deaf ear and two generations of struggle for truth and justice,” he said.

Mr Harris named and described each of the 48 victims in the apology, as survivors of the tragedy and families of the victims looked on from the Dáil gallery.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald became emotional as she spoke of the last remarks of youngsters to their families: “See you in the morning”, “Love you Ma, Love you Da”.

Other members of the Opposition spoke in the Dáil after the apology was given, including Social Democrats leader Holly Cairns, who said there is “justifiable public anger” that it has taken so long to reach this point, and Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, who spoke of the treatment of the families and victims due to where they came from and their treatment as second class citizens who were given “second-class burials”.

An inquest jury last week returned a verdict that all victims were unlawfully killed in the tragedy. It comes after a previous finding in 1982 that the fire had been started deliberately.

Inquest best reads


Speeches in the Dáil following the State apology to the families and victims of the Stardust fire have now concluded and that’s all from us for now. Thanks for joining our live coverage.


Independent TD Catherine Connolly welcomed the apology but said it would only be meaningful if it determines the next steps and looks back as to “how we were in this position”.

She told the Dáil that State institutions “actively contrived to prevent the truth coming out” and sought to “defame families”.

She said it must be uncomfortable for the families to sit in the Dáil but it should be more uncomfortable for the State.

“What’s happened here is absolutely class distinction and if you don’t face that, and begin to learn from that, we have learned nothing,” she said.

Following last week’s verdict of unlawful killing, Ms Connolly called for accountability in terms of who is responsible.


‘I am ashamed’

Independent TD Verona Murphy said the State must do better “and that includes me”.

She said her only interaction was with Antoinette Keegan in 2020 who wrote to her and asked for a contribution to the campaign.

Ms Murphy said she made a “paltry donation and I am ashamed”.

She paid tribute to the Taoiseach for responding so quickly in the wake of the inquest but warned that families should not have to fight for redress, noting the redress scheme for mother and baby home survivors as an example.

Independent TD Michael Healy-Rae said a compensation scheme should not be seen as a mere financial settlement but as a recognition of the State’s failings for the past.


Looking up to the families in the gallery, Solidarity TD Mick Barry said that nearly 20 successive governments “came, went and did nothing while this injustice festered”.

He said the verdict of probable arson allowed the manager of the Stardust to receive compensation which would be worth about €2 million today.

Mr Barry also referred to the 1979 Whiddy Island disaster in which 50 people lost their lives in west Cork.

He said it was his understanding that the families had sought a meeting with the Taoiseach and were looking for a fresh inquest. Mr Barry called for Mr Harris to agree to both.


People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said it was only because of the families’ courage, bravery, determination and ceaseless campaigning that the State had been “forced finally to give you some vindication and acknowledgment that you have so long deserved”.

He said when the political system failed them, ordinary people had supported them.

Mr Boyd Barrett said the only person who was ever persecuted following the unlawful killing was Christy Moore for his 1985 song about the fire, ‘They Never Came Home’.

“What follows from here must be led by the families. They must lead.” Mr Boyd Barrett was also applauded for his comments.


Social Democrats TD Cian O’Callaghan said it was hard to find a family in his part of the city which had not been affected by the tragedy.

The Dublin Bay North TD said the lack of counselling for survivors and families was just one of the State’s many failings.

Mr O’Callaghan paid tribute to the victims and survivors, and particularly the parents who did not live to see the day where their family members were exonerated.


See Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald’s speech below.


Social Democrats leader Holly Cairns said there is “justifiable public anger” that it has taken so long to reach this point.

“Anger that many parents did not live to see this watershed moment, anger that the suffering of the families and survivors was compounded by state inaction, deeply ingrained classism and an adversarial legal system that often seemed weighted are weighted in favour of the wealthy,” she said.

Ms Cairns paid tribute to members of the jury who have done this country “an enormous public service” by giving a year of their lives to hear hours of complex evidence.

“There is no doubt they arrived at the correct verdict last week when they determined that all 48 victims had been unlawfully killed,” she said.

Today’s apology must mark a turning point in how victims of injustice are treated in this country, she said. The families “should know today that this house and the entire country is behind you and your loved ones will never be forgotten”.


Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin also spoke of the treatment of the families and victims due to where they came from and their treatment as second class citizens who were given “second-class burials.”

The Dublin Bay North TD named each of the 48 victims and ended his speech as he began, saying “the truth shall set you free”.

He was the second TD, after Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, to be applauded in the chamber.


‘Justice delayed is justice denied’

Labour leader Ivana Bacik said the year-long inquest was nothing compared to the 43 year wait for justice.

She noted the late broadcaster Charlie Bird who had said if the victims were from another part of the city, subsequent events might have turned out differently.

Ms Bacik said justice delayed is justice denied, later adding: “The road to justice should not have been so hard.”

Ms Bacik issued a “heartfelt apology” as the leader of an opposition party which has served in Government.

“We are profoundly sorry, not only for the tragic deaths of your dear loved ones, but also for your subsequent battle of truth,” she said.

Ms Bacik called for fresh engagement on other issues such as redress and an investigation “and of ensuring that no family will ever have to endure what you have gone through.”


Sinn Féin TD Sean Crowe spoke of young people being arrested on the night of the fire as they tried to open the doors of the disco.

Mr Crowe became emotional as he recalled the disaster and the verdict last week when he said he cried, journalists cried, and the jurors cried.

He said he was not in the Stardust but he was of that generation adding: “We’ll never be the same.”


Victims ‘reduced to numbers’

Sinn Féin TD Denise Mitchell said families were dehumanised as their children were “bagged and tagged” and “reduced to numbers”.

She paid tribute to Dublin senior coroner Dr Myra Cullinane for allowing the families to introduce the pen portraits, enabling everyone to see the real human beings behind the numbers.

The Dublin Bay North TD recalled the panic in her father’s face when she told him of the fire because of his fear that his nieces or nephews might have been there.

Ms Mitchell said the days that followed saw “funeral after funeral” and a cloud of gloom that lasted “far, far too long”.

Referring to the “probable arson” claim, she said she could not overstate how insulting that claim was, not only to the victims “but to our community as a whole”.

Ms Mitchell said that from day one, the victims “didn’t matter” in the eyes of the State.

“They did matter and they do matter,” she said.


‘We are sorry ... we failed you’

Read the State apology to the Stardust families and victims in full here.


Ms McDonald said the hope of the State was that the families would eventually “shut up and give up and go away”.

But “you don’t mess with Dublin mammies” because “they will fight and they will win even when it takes 43 long years,” she added.

Ms McDonald said the Stardust family broke the heart of Dublin city and took the breadth of the nation.

“Justice was kept out of reach for those left to bear unimaginable loss,” she told the Dáil.

She said this moment is for the victims and the families who have lived with the ghost of unanswered questions and “the sorrow of the empty chair”.

She said that finally the truth has prevailed “and now let justice flow like a river”.

Ms McDonald’s address was the first to be acknowledged by applause.


Ms McDonald said traumatised families who received “no support” had to rely on each other for comfort and help adding that families were told to get the bus to the hospital or the morgue.

This callousness, she said, set the tone for the next four decades for the disrespect faced by the families.

“As the families suffered this cruelty, the big lie was already in motion, spreading as fast as the fire itself,” she said referencing allegations of arson which she said “smeared and criminalised” victims and survivors.

To this day she said families still ask “who crafted that lie, who spread it, who spun it?”

Ms McDonald noted family members speaking of people falling into addiction and depression because they could not cope with what happened while many parents died “without the comfort of vindication”.

She paid tribute to John Keegan who established the Stardust victims’ campaign group who died a year later on the day he lost the Supreme Court compensation case.


Ms McDonald referred to what happened on the night noting the flammable carpet tiles, the black smoke, people falling as they could not breathe. She quoted Antoinette Keegan, holding hands with her sisters and remembering her last words before she lost consciousness: “Oh God, help us”.

“Survivors recalled the inferno looking like a monster, a living thing coming after you with frightening ferocity,” she said.


Former minister of state and Fianna Fáil TD for the constituency Seán Haughey said he once attended the Stardust for a ballad session.

Mr Haughey said the finding of the Keane tribunal of probable arson was “appalling” and hopes that the apology delivered will bring “some sort of closure” to families.

Mr Haughey said at times his relations with the families’ committee was fraught and he apologised for that.


Fine Gael TD for Dublin Bay North Richard Bruton said there was a “burning sense of injustice” for victims and their families.

“We who worked in the constituency failed them and I acknowledge that fully,” he said.

He said the initial allegation of arson was a “slap in the face” to the families, adding that their anger with the system is fully justified.



‘Deep, lasting regret and shame’

Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times, Marie O’Halloran, who is in the Dáil for the State apology says Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien joined in the “full and unreserved State apology”.

Mr O’Brien said he was six years old at the time but had three teenage sisters and the Stardust was the main disco in the North Dublin area. He said the victims, their families, and friends were let down.

“This failure is a matter of deep, lasting regret and shame,” he said.

Mr O’Brien told the Dáil that there were also stories of courage and compassion, noting the fire brigade and gardaí carrying the victims out to worried and grieving families.

He said the grief cut deep and “it endures still” while the families “are a living tribute to those who have passed”.

Mr O’Brien said the matter was never settled for those who died in the succeeding years with no resolution.

The Minister said the families refused to be knocked down by indifference and they took up the cause anew.

“Today is not the end. There is a pressing moral demand for further steps now,” he said.

He said the fire safety standards would be reviewed and updated in consultation with the families to ensure such a fire can never happen again.


Green Party leader Eamon Ryan paid tribute to victims and families saying: “Most of us know what it’s like to lose a family member but few of us will have experienced the devastation of losing a loved one in such terrible circumstances.”

“The fact that this pain was compounded by the state’s unwillingness to correct the glaring flaws of those original investigations for so long, is impossible to justify,” he said.

Mr Ryan families have waited “far too long” for a State apology.

He said he spent some time going over the pen portraits of the victims adding that nobody was over the age of 27.

Mr Ryan who was 17 at the time of the fire recalled the pall and gloom that spread over the country at the time.

He added that the fondness and affection with which families spoke of their loved ones was touching and heartbreaking.


Mr Harris has apologised “unreservedly” to families and victims.

“The families gathered here today and their loved ones who perished, the family members who are no longer with us, and all those who suffered horrific injuries were the victims of a mass tragedy.

“In such shattering circumstances, the most basic expectation must surely be that the State comes to the aid of its citizens and supports them in the terrible aftermath.

“Instead, it is to our great and eternal shame that far from the warm embrace of a caring State, the Stardust family experienced a cold shoulder, a deaf ear and two generations of struggle for truth and justice,” he said.

“These bereaved families should never have had to walk alone, we should have been by your side, we should have worked with you, we were not, we did not.

“And for that, we are truly sorry,” the Taoiseach said.


“Forty-eight young people lost their lives in the Stardust disaster. Many more were injured and even more still had their lives broken and shattered forever,” Mr Harris told the Dáil.

Following last week’s verdict of unlawful killing, Mr Harris said: “I truly hope that the days since last Thursday have marked a turning point and here today in Dáil Éireann, we finally begin to put things right to bring you in from the cold and end the neglect of 43 years’ waiting and fighting for the only thing you ever wanted – the truth.”


Mr Harris is now reading the names and ages of each of the 48 victims, with remarks on each person including their interests and aspirations.

Recalling Caroline Carey (17) who was pregnant, the Taoiseach said the family asked that he tell the Dáil that her baby was the 49th victim.


‘We failed you when you need us the most’

Taoiseach Simon Harris has formally apologised to the victims and families of the Stardust fire.

“Today we say formally and without any equivocation we’re sorry. We failed you when you need us the most,” Mr Harris said.

“We failed you when you needed us the most. From the very beginning. We should have stood with you. But instead, we forced you to stand against us,” he said.


Pat Leahy, political editor of The Irish Times, says relatives of the Stardust victims are filling the public gallery above the Dáil and the distinguished visitors’ gallery in the chamber itself in advance of the Taoiseach’s apology, which is scheduled for 2pm.



‘It’s a big day for our family’

On the way into the Dáil, Maria Carey, who lost her sister Caroline in the fire, said she is “nervous” and “apprehensive” to hear what Mr Harris will say.

“It’s a big day for our family, it’s a long time coming, and I think it’s truly deserved,” she said, speaking on RTÉ's News at One.

Meanwhile, Gertrude Barrett, who lost her son Michael, said the apology is of the “utmost importance”.

“I knew this day would come,” she said.


Here is a reminder of what the jury inquest recommended last week:

1) “There be frequent revision to Technical Guidance Document B of the Building Regulations of 1997 (every five years to keep pace with changes in building uses and construction techniques).

2) “With regard to places of public resort inspections, we would like to see the current target of 70 per cent every two years improved to 100 per cent annually, in line with UK standards.”

Family representatives said they hoped to see the Taoiseach commit to implementing the recommendations alongside the expected State apology.


Families of Stardust victims are due to arrive to the Dáil to hear the State apology delivered by Taoiseach Simon Harris.

Despite the incoming apology, Betty Bissett (83), who spoke to Irish Times social affairs correspondent Kitty Holland, said she cannot yet believe the State will “own up” to the “harm” it did to her family and those of the 47 others who died as a result of the fire.

“At the moment I am thinking [the apology] is going to be taken away. We are that long waiting, getting our hopes up. Promises were broke before we even left the room,” she said.