CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Private Members' Motion
Establishment of a Commission of Investigation into the Stardust Fire
25 January 2017
Counter motion moved by the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald TD
I move the counter motion on behalf of the Government.
I want to thank the Deputy for raising this important matter.
The events that occurred at Stardust in the early hours of Valentine’s Day 1981, are ones that have lived long in the memories of those of us who were old enough to recognise the tragedy that was unfolding before us as we woke that morning.
The scale of the tragedy, as it emerged, was overwhelming.
Across the country, thousands of people, young and indeed not so young, went out on a Friday night: to dance, to celebrate, to enjoy themselves. They said goodbye to their loved ones; told them they would see them later; made plans for the following day. They did, and said, all the things that we do in such routine circumstances. Every parent worries when their child, whatever age, is heading out for the night. We tell them to ‘mind themselves’, to ‘be careful’. But we never think that something like this could happen.
48 young people lost their lives. Many more were seriously injured and live with those scars to this day; both physical and psychological.
We can only imagine the alarm of the families whose loved ones were out that night. As word of the fire emerged, the panic they must have felt; the torment they went through as they sought out news of their loved ones.
For some there was relief. For others the torture of desperately trying to keep hope while they awaited news.
But for so many there was only despair.
Tragedies such as this, and thankfully they are few, impact on a wider community than just those present on the night. The impact on the victims and their families and friends; on all those caught up in this terrible event, cannot be forgotten. And it has not been forgotten.
Members of these Houses have, in the past, spoken of their memories of these events; of people they knew who were injured, who lost their lives. The Stardust Fire is part of our communal history; it is right that it is not forgotten and that we continue, in this House, to discuss and consider any measure that may address the terrible legacy of the Fire.
Immediately after the fire, a Tribunal of Inquiry was established and it reported on 30 June 1982.
Deputies are familiar with the Report’s findings, which were highly critical of the building's owners, the fire safety measures in place, the means of escape and the response of the emergency services.
Over the following years, the findings of the Tribunal, particularly as they related to the finding of probable arson, were the source of dissatisfaction for many victims. Concerns also emerged as to whether the real cause of the fire had been identified and the adequacy of the investigations that were carried out.
Throughout the first half of the last decade the Committee representing victims and their relatives communicated these concerns to Government. The Committee’s submissions also advanced an alternative hypothesis as to the cause of the fire. Following this, the Government of the day in 2008 agreed to appoint an independent legal expert, Mr Paul Coffey, to examine the case made by the Committee.
The report of this Independent Legal Examination was published in January 2009. It dealt in some detail with the findings of the original Tribunal Report. Its key conclusion was that the
“Tribunal’s conclusion as to the cause of the fire cannot be demonstrated to be objectively justifiable”
and that the Tribunal’s finding of fact that the fire was probably started deliberately was on its true construction a hypothetical finding only.
The Report’s conclusion that the finding of arson in the original Tribunal Report was hypothetical only, and that no-one present could be held responsible, addressed a long-standing stigma of suggested criminality which some of the victims and bereaved felt hung over all who had been in attendance on the night.
The Report also considered the hypothesis put forward by the Committee as to the cause of the fire, but concluded that they had not identified any evidence which could establish its cause. It also found that,
“the new and other evidence relied upon by the Committee at its highest merely establishes that the fire began in the roof space but does not establish its point of origin or cause.”
Following the publication of the Report, the Government of the day in 2009 moved motions in both the Dáíl and the Seanad, which were passed on an all-party basis in both Houses, which acknowledged:
“the view of Mr. Coffey that to establish a new Tribunal to investigate the cause of the fire in the absence of any identified evidence would not be in the public interest”
While the findings of the Independent Legal Examination were widely welcomed at the time, subsequently some family members raised concerns about the process and its outcome. On my appointment as Minister in 2014, I met with Ms Antoinette Keegan, Ms Geraldine Foy (a researcher and advisor to the Committee) and the Committee’s solicitor Mr Paul O’Sullivan, to hear at first hand their concerns and, following that meeting, I appointed an official in my Department to liaise with the Committee.
There has been significant engagement with Ms Antoinette Keegan, Ms Geraldine Foy and Mr Robin Knox (another researcher associated with the Committee) through that mechanism. Significant progress was made in 2015 with collaborative efforts between them and the Department resulting in the drawing up of a document outlining their case. Subsequently they indicated that they wished to provide further material to my Department.
Further material was provided to my Department in January of 2016 and engagement on these lines had been continuing up until the end of 2016, at which point they decided not to proceed with the process.
The Government is mindful of the understandable depth of feeling of those affected by this tragedy and of the need to avoid adding to their distress. I think it would be regrettable, against a background where there has previously been broad agreement in the House on motions relating to these events, if that consensus could not be maintained.
Returning to the motions passed in the House following the 2009 Report which accepted
“the view of Mr. Coffey that to establish a new Tribunal to investigate the cause of the fire in the absence of any identified evidence would not be in the public interest,”
the key issue that now arises is whether any new evidence can be identified as to the cause of the fire.
To address this the Government proposes in its motion that, in the first instance, an independent person be appointed to urgently assess the question of whether any new evidence can be identified. The Government will act on their findings.
As stated in the Programme for Government,
“Full regard will be had to any new evidence which emerges which would be likely to definitely establish the cause of the fire at Stardust."
If the independent assessment confirms the existence of new evidence, a Commission of Investigation will be established and the Government will proceed on the basis as outlined in the motion.
I strongly believe that this is the most appropriate way forward. As I have said, it is right that the tragedy is not forgotten and that we continue, in this House, to discuss and consider any measure that may address the terrible legacy of the Stardust Fire.