Stardust victims’ families: ‘We are getting the truth for them this time’

The bereaved of the Stardust are writing pen pictures of their dead. Simple descriptions of the loved ones lost, the words will tell of the lives they led, the things they held dear and the futures they planned.

he details are so carefully treasured by the families left behind that it ought to be no problem to put them on paper. But to reveal the person, they have to strip away 40 years of pain and struggle that lie thickly layered upon their precious memories, and that is not so easy.

They will do it, though, because the pen pictures are for the inquests into their loved ones’ deaths and, in all the formalities to come, they want to keep the victims front and centre.

“It’s to remind everyone what this is all for,” says Antoinette Keegan of the Stardust Victims Committee, who has two portraits to write: for her sisters Mary and Martina.

The fight to keep the dead to the fore began almost immediately. There were numbered body bags, closed coffins and burials of incomplete remains, bodies missing limbs that the families believed a more careful search of the debris would have found.

There were joint funerals with identical caskets when bodies could not be separately identified. The final five were given their names only in 2007 after pleas to government for exhumation and DNA tests.

A tribunal of inquiry was established with exceptional speed, appointed and given terms of reference within six days of the fire, its first witness appearing just six weeks later, its final sitting in November that same year.

Many of the 214 treated for injuries were still in hospital or recovering at home and never got to give evidence.

Then came the inquests the following March, 48 crammed into four days, the briefest of evidence given, the most cursory of examinations pursued.

Verdicts were “in accordance with the medical evidence”. Death was due to smoke inhalation and burns, end of story. None of the powers a coroner’s court has to establish all the circumstances and contributory factors in a death were used.

Tribunal chairman Mr Justice Ronan Keane delivered his report two months later. He had heard copious evidence of fire safety breaches and mismanagement by the club’s owners, and of shortcomings in worksmanship in the building, its fixtures and electrics.

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Stardust tribunal of inquiry chairman Justice Ronan Keane Stardust tribunal of inquiry chairman Justice Ronan Keane

Stardust tribunal of inquiry chairman Justice Ronan Keane

Stardust tribunal of inquiry chairman Justice Ronan Keane

He said that the cause of the fire was not known and might never be known and then, despite acknowledging that there was “no evidence that the fire was started deliberately”, he concluded that the “probable explanation of the fire is that it was started deliberately”.

How it was done and by whom was a matter of “conjecture”, he said, but then proceeded to say it was probably caused by someone setting fire to a seat and he concluded that some “sinister” motive was behind the “reckless criminal enterprise”.

His conclusions convulsed the mourning communities, but their torment was only to deepen.

The following year, the owners of the Stardust, the Butterly family, sued the State as victims of a criminal enterprise and received the equivalent of €730,000.

Antoinette’s father, John Keegan, saw the premises being rebuilt and almost lost his mind. He assaulted Eamon Butterly, who had managed the Stardust, and was ordered in court to pay him almost €2,000.

He was to be the only person ever prosecuted in relation to the Stardust.

Outraged, families decided to sue the Butterlys and the State. Under pressure to avoid fighting distraught families in court, the government set up a compensation tribunal.

Awards totalling €13m were made, a large sum in 1986, but it was shared among 823 people, with most claimants receiving a few thousand. Loss of a child was valued at £7,500 — equivalent to less than €10,000.

Antoinette’s mother, Christine, who died last summer, received compensation for nervous shock. Her father, John, received nothing.

On principle, he took judicial review proceedings, ended up in the Supreme Court and lost. He died the day the judgment came out, a previously healthy man ravaged by cancer.

The three-man tribunal panel wrote of their concern about the medical and psychological neglect of the injured, the bereaved and the traumatised, and recommended supports be put in place for them. That did not happen.

In 2003, a volunteer researcher who took an interest in the families’ story began reviewing the Keane report and the sparse paperwork publicly available. The tribunal had used incorrect drawings of Stardust’s layout, missed key witnesses and failed to piece together important evidence.

Everything began pointing towards the fire starting in the roof space, full of highly flammable cleaning and cooking liquids and overloaded electrical connections.

A vital 999 call, made from outside the premises, reported flames on the roof before any of the frantic calls were made from inside. The call, the caller and other witnesses outside, were not considered by the tribunal.

In 2007, the government appointed senior counsel Paul Coffey to review the case. In early 2009, he reported that Justice Keane’s probable arson conclusion was wrong and should be removed from public record.

It was vindication for the families but was marred by Coffey’s conclusion that the cause of the fire would probably never be known. An earlier version of his report had said the families could have a case for a new inquiry.

They pushed on. In 2017, retired Judge Pat McCartan was appointed to assess their case. His report was critical of the families’ disorganised and unprofessional dossier and he said their claim was unwarranted.

Undaunted, the Stardust committee went to the attorney general, who has powers under the Coroner’s Act to order an inquest reopened. Séamus Wolfe considered their case for the best part of a year, and then, in September 2019, agreed with them.

The inquests should have started by now but Covid delayed proceedings.

“It will be very tough on the families,” Antoinette says. “The medical reports and what that fire did to our loved ones will be hard to hear.

“But what was done for 40 years afterwards was as bad and that’s what we have to fix. We’re getting the truth for them this time.”

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