33 years later, are there new hope of answers in the Stardust tragedy? Ronan Lynch examines the evidence.
Gardaí in Coolock are investigating allegations that witnesses to the Stardust Tribunal deliberately misled the inquiry. The investigation follows a complaint by researcher Geraldine Foy, who has been working on behalf of the victims’ families for the last ten years. The original Tribunal report had glaring inconsistencies that required the Tribunal to discard evidence that contradicted its eventual finding that the fire was probably caused by arson.
Despite years of revelations that the Irish state and its agents are capable of high levels of mendacity and sheer bad-mindedness, it’s still difficult to accept that the horrendous tragedy at the Stardust club in 1981, resulting in 48 deaths and hundreds of injuries, was compounded by a cover-up by witnesses called to the Tribunal of Inquiry, yet that is the upshot of the latest allegations. Developments in recent years have established that the Tribunal of Inquiry was at best flawed and a re-examination of the tragedy in 2008 that was initiated by victims’ families resulted in the devastating original finding of arson being removed.
The death of 48 young people at the Stardust on Valentine’s night in 1981 remains one of the worst disasters and greatest unsolved mysteries in the history of the Irish state. Along with the dead, a further 214 people were injured, 11 of them suffering permanent scars or disfigurement. When the flaming roof of the club started falling in on patrons at around 1.45am, the more than 800 people tried to escape but the lighting failed and several of the fire doors were locked from the outside, trapping them in the dark as poisonous fumes filled the club. The disaster cut to the soul of north Dublin and the communities around Artane and Coolock where most of the victims lived.
Compounding the disaster, a Tribunal of Inquiry headed by Justice Ronan Keane that reported in 1982 found the probable cause of the fire to be arson, which effectively laid the blame on the local community. The Butterly family, which controlled the Stardust, was criticised in the report for failure to comply with fire regulations the finding of arson opened the door for the Butterlys to receive compensation of close to £600,000 for the loss of their business. The Butterlys had been important supporters of Fianna Fáil in the TACA days and exercised considerable influence in north Dublin. In contrast, pitiful sums of compensation were paid to the victims and their families.
The tribunal found that the fire had probably started in the western alcove as a result of arson and had then spread throughout the club. Yet in order to reach this conclusion, key evidence that suggested the fire started somewhere in or close to the roof space and was observed in the roof of the Stardust several minutes before it was observed inside was ignored, mislaid or omitted. For more than 30 years, the survivors and families of the victims have fought to expose what they believe is a cover-up of the true cause of the fire.
The Stardust had a suspended ceiling and many of the patrons were injured when the flaming ceiling collapsed on top of them. Did the blaze actually start in an overworked lighting electrical system, spread to the store room next door, and then into the overhead roof space? Many of the victims’ families believe so, and research conducted on their behalf points to this possibility as the most likely explanation for the fire. One key point was the existence or otherwise of a ‘fuel load’ required to fuel the fire. Evidence provided to the tribunal indicated that cooking oil, a likely fuel source, was stored in the kitchen, yet a fireman reported finding cooking oil drums in the store room. Electrical faults had been noticed in lamp room in the weeks before the fatal blaze. Critically, a map provided to the tribunal by the Gardai indicated that the ‘store room’ was above the basement, although no basement existed in the club. It is possible that the misleading reporting of the store room situation critically compounded a correct understanding of the situation. The store room and lamp room were in fact adjacent to the roof space where the fire mostly likely intensified, and was first spotted from outside.
The storeroom contained flammable cleaning material, plastics, paper towels and drums of cooking oil and was situated right next door to the lamp room which drove the club’s lighting system. Both rooms were open to the roof space. Against regulations, the lamp room and the store room were only separated by a wooden partition rather than the required fire wall. The list of materials in the store room originally provided to the tribunal did not include the cooking oil, although staff at the Stardust knew that there was cooking oil there, as chips and sausages were served to patrons. Ignoring the fuel load in the store room, the tribunal was informed by its fire experts that the major fire load inside the Stardust was in fact the seating. In addition, a map originally submitted to the tribunal suggested that the store room was above the basement, although the club contained no basement. Was this a deliberate obfuscation of the geography of the club?
The Tribunal’s findings suggested that the a patron had set fire to the chairs, which served as the ‘fuel load’. Yet the possibility that the fire originated in the lamp room was not considered, although it matches the evidence of the external witnesses: that the fire had started somewhere out of sight of the patrons, and that rather than the fire starting in the western alcove and spreading to the roof, it actually travelled the other way around, originating in the lamp room, spreading to the store room and gathering power in the roof space before the roof started to collapse onto the horrified patrons.
Inside, many witnesses had first seen the fire when pieces of the ceiling started to fall down on people attending the dance at around 1.39am or 1.40am. Several witnesses outside the building saw a fire in the roof of the Stardust minutes before any of the people inside noticed the fire, suggesting that the fire did indeed start in the roofspace. Taxi driver Robert O’Callaghan reported seeing flames over the club around 1.30am. One local resident, Thomas Blair, photographed the fire and timed it to 1.35am. Their evidence was largely rejected by the Tribunal as being inconsistent with the evidence of those inside the club, and the Tribunal reported that the fire started at around 1.40am.
What remains to be seen is whether evidence was deliberately suppressed and omitted in order to cover up the true cause of the fire.