Stardust fire: Families of 47 of 48 victims could be excluded from inquests, Dáil told

Agreement on legal funding for inquests into 1981 nightclub tragedy comes undone

Stardust fire: 48 young people died on February 14th, 1981. Photograph: The Irish Times

Stardust fire: 48 young people died on February 14th, 1981. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

The inquests into the Stardust fire 40 years ago in which 48 young people died and hundreds were injured could potentially exclude the families of 47 of the victims, the Dáil has been warned.

Labour TD Aodhán Ó Riordáin called on the Government to ensure the inquests into the February 14th, 1981, blaze at the Stardust nightclub in Artane in North, will go ahead.

A funding row between the Department of Justice and the victims’ families that had apparently been resolved in May is understood to have broken out again.

The dispute over funding for their legal costs emerged earlier this year when the Legal Aid Board said some of the families’ incomes exceeded the threshold set to qualify for legal aid.

Civil legal aid regulations were then signed by Minister for Justice Heather Humphreys in May to “allow all families on an exceptional basis to access legal aid for the Stardust inquests regardless of means”, and this appeared to bring a resolution.

Up to €8 million has been set aside by the State for the inquests.

Raising the issue in the Dáil Mr Ó Riordáin read out the names of the 48 people who died in the tragedy to the eight TDs, the Leas Cheann Comhairle and officials present in the chamber.

He said “nobody wants an unseemly political row over what is an intensely traumatic and sensitive issue. The families however feel that the funding has not been made available to their satisfaction”.

It is understood the families are concerned that funding has not been made available up-front.

The Dublin Bay North TD warned “there is potential for 47 families not to be involved in the inquests if things continue as they currently stand”.

He appealed to Minister of State James Browne to speak to the Minister for Justice “to ensure the inquest can continue and that we don’t have any cloud hanging over it”.

Mr Browne, who described the fire as a national tragedy, said it had left a particular legacy of pain for many families and people in north Dublin who had suffered a terrible loss.

Significant work had already been undertaken on the new Stardust inquests by the senior Dublin coroner Dr Myra Cullinane, he said.

She has conducted five pre-inquest hearings, and the sixth is scheduled to take place on October 13th.

The Minister said the Attorney General directed that the inquest take place but he stressed however that the conduct of Stardust inquiries was entirely a matter for the senior Dublin coroner.

Mr Browne said “it is important to note that neither the Minister nor her Department have any role in this regard”. He added however that the Minister “is committed to ensuring that the Stardust inquests and the families involved are provided with all relevant supports”.

The €8 million Government funding allocated for the new inquests “will help provide for legal aid for the families concerned”.

Mr Browne said the the Legal Aid Board is engaging with the legal representatives of the families to agree an appropriate funding structure and schedule.

The funding will also cover the cost of the fit out of a bespoke Covid-compliant courtroom in the RDS and remote-hearing technology.

Mr Ó Riordáin stressed that “what we don’t want is to have a row over money that wasn’t forthcoming from the department”.

The Minister agreed nobody wanted a row over money and said the Legal Aid Board would continue to engage with the legal representatives of the families on an extremely sensitive and tragic situation.

Later in the Seanad Sinn Féin Senator Lynn Boylan accused the Department of Justice of trying to row back on a written agreement on costs with lawyers for 46 of the families.

When then attorney general Seamus Woulfe said an inquest should be held in the public interest, discussions went on for six months from September 2020 between the department and solicitors for 46 of the families on how the costs should be covered.

Ms Boylan said the department was repeatedly warned of the need for a “bespoke arrangement” but insisted that it should go the legal aid route.

She said “it now appears that the Department of Justice are trying to wash their hands of the fact that they gave that written confirmation to the legal team and the families they represent, and are saying that it is now up to the Legal Aid Board and the lawyers to once again negotiate and thrash this out”.

She added the Minister’s statement that €8 million would be put in place to help cover the costs of the inquest was a “significant move and shift in position from what we were told when the inquest was granted”.

The Dublin Senator added that she was “disgusted” with the way the families were treated by the Minister and the department.

“I ask again why it is that the State continuously forces these families to go through the mill in order to get the answers as to what happened to their loved ones on that night in 1981.”