Justice for the Stardust 48—Courageous campaigning by Stardust families results in unlawful killing verdict

By Michael O’Brien

The verdict of unlawful death by a jury in the coroner’s court after a hearing that commenced a year ago marks a massive vindication of the struggle waged over forty years by the families of the 48 young working-class victims who perished in Stardust fire on 14th February 1981.

There remains serious unfinished business. The families’ call for an apology from the government on behalf of the State is completely justified. The treatment of families over the decades is an indictment of successive governments, the Department of Justice, and the judiciary.

Disgraceful treatment by the state 

The story of the families’ quest for justice is one of the establishment repeatedly closing ranks to protect its own. But it is also a story of the same establishment repeatedly underestimating the tenacity of the families who never gave up.

Eamon Butterly, the owner of the Stardust nightclub and, to this day, the Butterly Business Park industrial estate where the nightclub was located in Artane, came from a family with strong Fianna Fáil links, something Patrick Butterly admitted to in his biography from Radishes to Riches. 

The fundraising activities of the Butterlys for Fianna Fáil proved vital in protecting Eamon Butterly after the fire. He did not have to answer for the unsafe carpet tiles that decorated the walls, the welding of bars on the bathroom windows, and the placing of chains over fire exits to prevent people from getting in for free into the 1,500-capacity venue.

Rotten role of the state 

Instead, Fianna Fáil appointed Judge Ronan Keane to arrive at a verdict of arson, effectively painting Butterly as a victim. A case Butterly took against Dublin Corporation resulted in him being awarded over half a million old Irish pounds or the equivalent of €2 million in today’s money. 

The families maintained a struggle to have the case reopened, which had to include direct actions, including an occupation of the Department of Justice in 2009, which led to a senior counsel, Paul Coffey, being appointed to reexamine the case. He concluded that there was not a public interest in reopening the case.

Devastated but unbowed, the families kept up their campaign and a retired High Court judge, Pat McCartan was appointed to examine the case in 2016. McCartan was a former Workers’ Party/Democratic Left TD in Dublin North East in the late eighties/early nineties, where many of the families of the victims lived. However, any hopes that he would approach the case sympathetically were cruelly dashed when he contemptuously dismissed the technical evidence acquired by the families.

Determined campaign 

This setback would have been enough to crush most people. Still, incredibly the families picked themselves up and marshalled a mass postcard campaign that involved shopping centres and street stalls that they and their supporters conducted not just in the northeast of Dublin but also in working-class communities around the country, smashing the target of 48,000 signed postcards, addressed to the government, over a thousand for every victim. 

This campaign also included banner displays and other actions at sporting events such as Croke Park and League of Ireland grounds and the marshalling of high-profile supporters, including Christy Moore and recent deceased RTE broadcaster Charlie Bird. This all contributed to the irresistible pressure which resulted finally in a proper publicly held coroners enquiry. The enquiry began with moving speeches delivered about each of the victims from family members, thus putting them at the centre of proceedings before testimony was taken from witnesses and experts. They got to the heart of the criminal negligence that made the Stardust such a fire trap.

Criminal charges against Butterly are entirely warranted. Incredibly he tried to reopen a venue on the site in 2006 but backed down in the face of a significant backlash in the area. It’s clear from his testimony that he is fundamentally unrepentant. Whether any such charges will be brought remains to be seen, but the verdict obtained this week of unlawful death remains a remarkable achievement by the families.

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