Cause of fire key issue for relatives in Stardust inquests

New witness evidence available, solicitor for victims group says

The fresh inquests into the deaths of 48 people in the 1981 Stardust fire will be the fourth time an inquiry has been held into the cause of the tragedy.

According to Darragh Mackin, solicitor to the Stardust victims group, new evidence from witnesses who have not given evidence before will be available.

So too will be evidence from fire experts, who will apply modern methodologies to evidence surviving from the time of the fire.

The key issue, from the point of view of the relatives, is where the fire broke out – in the roof or the public area – and their sense of hurt at the suggestion that the fire might have been started deliberately by young people in the Stardust on the night in question.

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Among the arguments put to attorney general Seamus Woulfe was that the law has developed and it is necessary that inquests into deaths such as these investigate the wider circumstances, and not just the narrow issue of the direct cause of death.

The Oireachtas established a tribunal of inquiry within days of the fire. It was headed by Mr Justice Ronan Keane, and reported in June 1982. The tribunal heard evidence from 363 witnesses.

The report was controversial. At one stage the judge stated: “As in the case of the various possibilities of an accidental fire already considered, there is no evidence to indicate that the fire was, in fact, started deliberately ”.

However, in his conclusions he said his considerations of “hypotheses” as to how the fire might have started accidentally led him to decide that the “probable explanation of the fire is that it was caused deliberately”.

Prima facie case

In 2009 a review of the tribunal report, and of new evidence produced by the committee, was conducted by the then barrister, and now judge, Mr Justice Paul Coffey. He decided: "Arising from the absence of any evidence that the fire was started deliberately, together with the new expert evidence . . . I am satisfied that the committee has established a prima facie case that the tribunal's conclusion as to the cause of the fire cannot be demonstrated to be objectively justifiable."

He also decided it was not in the public interest to hold a new inquiry, as there was no new evidence that would establish the cause of the fire.

“It seems to me that in the absence of any identified evidence capable of establishing the cause of the fire, such an inquiry can only at best produce a hypothetical finding neither capable of proof or disproof .”

As a result of the report, the Oireachtas passed a motion removing the tribunal finding that arson was the probable cause.

The issue was reviewed again in 2017, by then judge Pat McCartan, who looked at new material raised by the committee. He again decided it was not in the public interest to hold a new inquiry into the fire’s cause.

“Due to the passing of time it is much harder today to find such an explanation and this assessment must conclude that the cause of the fire may never be known.”

Mr Mackin said it was difficult to estimate how long the inquests would last. “It would be naive to think it would be anything other that six months to a year.”