By Michael O’Brien
The inquest, being heard in public, into the Stardust fire which on Valentine’s Day 1981 resulted in the deaths of 48 young people, overwhelmingly from Dublin northside working-class communities, began in late April.
The very fact this inquest is happening is the testament to the tenacity of the bereaved families who waged a ceaseless campaign for truth and accountability in the intervening 40 plus years, and who refused to settle for the several sham processes and fake inquests which were designed to absolve those who are culpable.
The last of these shams was in 2018, when former High Court Judge (and Dublin North East Workers Party / Democratic Left TD) Pat McCartan ‘reviewed’ the evidence assembled by supporters of the families of which he was completely dismissive and contemptuous.
One could have understood if McCartan’s ‘findings’ had knocked the stuffing out of the families who had been campaigning for justice. Instead they picked themselves up and ran a hugely effective postcard campaign that was taken into main streets and shopping centres around Dublin and beyond. This massively harnessed the public sympathy and generated an irresistible pressure for the eventual conceding of this inquest which meets the standards rightly demanded by the families.
A proper inquest at last
Before delving into the events of that tragic night the inquest began with moving statements about each of the deceased, read mostly by surviving relatives but in some instances by high profile supporters such as Christy Moore.
What has been brought home in these pen portraits is that the toll of destroyed lives in reality ran into the hundreds if not thousands of loved ones. One of the tragedies of it taking so long for this inquest to take place is that only a handful of the parents of the 48 are still alive.
The inquest has since moved on to hearing witnesses or statements taken from previous inquiries, which have never been heard in the public domain but are now being read into the record of this inquest. What has already been heard is absolutely damning.
Testimony and statements have been heard of then-Dublin Corporation fire officers in the months and weeks before the fire challenging the management over the obstruction and locking of fire exits. There have been recollections of the admittance of hundreds above the legal capacity of 1,400 to a gig by The Specials shortly before the fire.
Likewise there was the welding of bars in the bathrooms just six weeks before the fire, and the latest testimony, heard at the time of writing, relates to the use of carpet wall tiles bought on the cheap from the UK that did not meet the required fire safety standards.
Justice against class contempt
Taken together the picture that is emerging is one of greed and contempt for working-class young people on the part of a greedy owner who clearly had ‘pull’ and influence that saw him receive a massive insurance settlement out of the fire while the families were left to pick up the pieces of their lives.
Can anyone believe that such a shoddy, hazardous set up would have been permitted in an affluent community, or if a fire in these circumstances had occurred resulting in the deaths of young people from privileged backgrounds that those culpable would have been able to get away with it?
There is a palpable expectation that finally this inquest will make findings of fact about the contributory factors and true causes of this disaster, such is the weight of evidence.
It is not just the owner of the Stardust on whom the spotlight needs to be shone, but how a succession of enquiries and investigations, particularly in the early days after the fire, failed to draw the conclusions that have been long drawn by an informed public.