Stardust inquest into 48 deaths could help ‘allay persistent rumours’

Coroner asks counsel for families to identify specifically stories referenced at the hearing

Aftermath of the Stardust nightclub blaze in Artane, Dublin. The hearing was told that ‘the purpose of the inquest was to establish facts and not to assign blame’. File  photograph: Tom Lawlor

Aftermath of the Stardust nightclub blaze in Artane, Dublin. The hearing was told that ‘the purpose of the inquest was to establish facts and not to assign blame’. File photograph: Tom Lawlor

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The inquest into the deaths of 48 people who died in the 1981 fire in the Stardust nightclub, Artane, Dublin, could help allay rumours that have persisted since that tragedy, a preliminary hearing has been told.

The inquest, which is being conducted by Myra Cullinane, is scheduled to sit for three days to hear submissions on whether, as desired by the families of the deceased, the hearing would take into account Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Dr Cullinane is a senior coroner with the Dublin District Coroner’s Court.

However, a preliminary view has been formed that given the law as it stands there is no requirement to do so.

So the sitting on Wednesday morning considered only submissions as to the correct scope of the inquiry and completed its business well before lunchtime.

Dr Cullinane, addressing Michael O’Higgins SC, for the families, said public policy underlying any coroner’s inquest included allaying any rumours or suspicions that might exist. It would be of assistance if he could identify specifically the rumours it is being sought to allay, she said.

Mr O’Higgins said he would be hesitant to put on record any rumours that were circulating.

The Stardust fire was “one of those events where, if you are of a certain age, you can remember where you were on the night in question, even if your connection to the event was non-existent”, he said.

There were, of course, “a lot of rumours floating around” afterwards. Time, grief and subsequent inquiries, some of which had been found to have been flawed, had added to the situation.

The inquest, he said, “can make a very real attempt . . . to allay those rumours. And at least at the end say that certain facts were established – and from that abate the situation where . . . things which existed in myth are repeated as reality.”

He said the purpose of the inquest is to establish facts and not to assign blame or to exonerate anybody.

“But that does not mean that matters cannot be investigated that in another forum would give rise to some sort of liability.”

The passage of time made the task before the inquest all the more difficult. And there is a “heavy onus on everyone to do everything in our grasp to get this as right as is humanely possible”.

Families traumatised

The families of those who had died had carried a very significant trauma over the years. There is an opportunity now for them to get answers to questions that have remained unanswered for many years, said Mr O’Higgins.

Shane Murphy SC, for An Garda Síochána, said the inquiry should be focused on matters proximate to the night in question and central to the issue of causation of the deaths. The legislation did not provide for the inquest to conduct a “review” of previous inquiries into the tragedy, he said.

Paul O’Higgins SC, for Eamon Butterly, a member of the family that owned the Stardust, said a coroner’s jurisdiction is focused on what is necessary for its function of inquiring into the cause of death.

Counsel for the inquest, Simon Mills SC, said the coroner would have to balance two competing matters: those being the conducting of an inquiry that is as thorough as necessary; while at the same time conducting an inquiry that is as expeditious as possible and that does not involve excessive duration or expense.

The hearing also heard from Conleth Bradley SC, for Dublin City Council, and Séamus Ó Tuathaill SC , for Patricia Kennedy, whose 17-year-old daughter Mary died in the fire.

Dr Cullinane said she would circulate electronically her provisional decision as to the scope of the inquest and that it would be several weeks before the court sat next.