That Dáil Éireann:
notes the report of the independent examination by Mr. Paul Coffey SC of the concerns of the Stardust Victims Committee in relation to the investigation of the cause of the fire disaster;
acknowledges that the cause of the fire is unknown, the original finding of arson is a mere hypothetical explanation and is not demonstrated by any evidence and that none of the persons present on the night of the fire can be held responsible for it;
accepts 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;
supports the Government in establishing a Committee to monitor the counselling and medical needs of the survivors and bereaved; and
expresses its continuing and deep sympathy with all of the victims and bereaved of the Stardust Fire tragedy.
The circumstances of the tragedy at the Stardust will no doubt be recounted by many of those who speak this evening and the brutal facts are known to us all. Nevertheless, it is only right that I begin by recording them, out of respect for all affected and in recognition of the magnitude of the tragedy.
On the evening of 13 February 1981, of the tens of thousands of young people who went out to enjoy themselves across the country, several hundred attended a disco at the Stardust ballroom in Artane, Dublin. Forty-eight of those young people never came home, 148 were seriously injured and all were caught up in what was undoubtedly one of the most horrific events of recent history. The reaction throughout society was one of immediate and overwhelming shock, sympathy and outrage. Compelled by the same feelings, the then Government moved quickly to establish a tribunal of inquiry with extensive terms of reference to inquire into the circumstances of the fire, as well as the measures to prevent and deal with it.
The inquiry, carried out by a former Chief Justice, was a substantial and extensive examination. It sat for 122 days and heard evidence from 363 witnesses, 161 of whom were present in the building on the night of the fire. Its findings as to the adequacy of the fire safety measures in place were damning, as were its conclusions concerning the means of escape. The locking and chaining of doors intended for fire escape are recalled by everyone to this day.
The tribunal was also highly critical of the emergency response. Notwithstanding the dedication and bravery of the individual officers, it found the management systems, equipment and training of the fire service were lacking. It also found serious shortcomings in the initial investigation by the Garda, the Forensic Science Laboratory and in the overall regulatory environment.
The tribunal did not simply identify these inadequacies, it went on to chart a programme for modernising the fire prevention and protection regime in the State. There has been a significant long-term impact on fire safety as a result of action taken on foot of these recommendations. A new legislative framework was put in place under the Fire Services Acts 1981 and 2003. This fixes the person in control of a building with a statutory responsibility to take precautions to prevent the outbreak of fire and, in the event of fire, to ensure the safety of persons on the premises. Locking of doors and the blocking of escape routes are specific offences under regulations made under the 1981 Act. Powers of inspection, enforcement and prosecution have all been strengthened. At the same time, substantial investment in fire service infrastructure, communications, equipment, staffing and training have all transformed the service from what it was in 1981. It should not have taken this tragedy to bring forward these recommendations and provide focus for their implementation, but these are nevertheless part of the legacy of Stardust.
There was, however, undoubtedly dissatisfaction from many of the victims with the outcome of the tribunal in so far as the identification of arson as a possible cause was concerned. In recent years the Stardust victims' committee has urged the Government to reopen the inquiry. Discussions between officials from my Department and representatives of the families led in 2004 to the presentation of a submission on behalf of the Stardust victims' committee, which examined a range of issues relating to the fire and its investigation. This submission was carefully examined but the advice received was that it did not amount to new evidence such that the original inquiry should be reopened.
Communication channels were maintained with the committee and at all times it was made clear that any further submission it or the representatives wished to make would be carefully examined. This is turn led to the submission of the document, Nothing but the Truth, a far more extensive submission than that earlier presented. Whereas the advice remained that it did not contain new evidence, in deference to the strength of concerns expressed by the families, the Government agreed that it would appoint an independent person to examine the process.
Every facility was made available to the families in agreeing the terms of reference for this examination and in providing funding to assist them in meeting the legal and technical expert costs of participating in the process. That report had been received and considered by Government and was put into the public domain on Friday, 23 January. Rather than attempt to summarise all of its detailed deliberations, I will address its salient contents, particularly in so far as they relate to the motion laid before the House.
Mr. Coffey concludes that the finding of probable arson was on its face a mere hypothetical finding only. He recommends that the Government should consider whether it can correct the public record by placing on the record of the Dáil and Seanad an acknowledgement of the original tribunal's finding that there is no evidence that the fire was started deliberately and that the cause of the fire is unknown. The primary purpose of this motion is to acknowledge the original tribunal's findings concerning the absence of evidence and to put this on the public record as recommended by Mr. Coffey.
The Government acknowledges that the Report of the Tribunal of Inquiry on the Fire at the Stardust Artane, Dublin on 14 February 1981 at paragraph 6.167 states:
The cause of fire is not known and may never be known. There is no evidence of an accidental origin; and equally no evidence that the fire was started deliberately.
The Government wishes to acknowledge that as a matter of fact the actual cause of the catastrophic fire at the Stardust on 14 February 1981 is unknown. None of the victims of the Stardust disaster or the persons present at the Stardust on the night of the fire can be held responsible for the fire. We simply cannot say how the fire was caused and nobody present on the night can be held responsible for its cause.
Mr. Coffey has further considered the case made by the committee for a new inquiry. His conclusion is that the committee has not identified any new or available evidence capable of establishing the cause of the fire. He states that whereas it could be argued that a further inquiry would at least establish whether the fire began in the west alcove or in the roof space, it seems to him that at a remove of nearly three decades from the date of the fire and in the absence of any identified evidence which can establish the cause of the fire wheresoever it arose, the public interest would not be served in establishing a further inquiry solely for that purpose.
He also considers whether a case can be made for a further inquiry to assess the probable cause of the fire but concludes that in the absence of any identified evidence capable of establishing the cause of the fire, such an inquiry can only at best produce a hypothetical finding neither capable of proof nor disproof and therefore of no obvious or any forensic value. The Government accepts 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 which could establish the case of the fire would not be in the public interest. It would simply not have a realistic prospect of coming to any definitive conclusions concerning the cause of the fire and would not materially advance our knowledge, or that of the families, as to its factual cause.
Rather than pursuing such an avenue, the Government is more concerned at making progress on the discretionary recommendation made by Mr. Coffey. The intention is that a committee will be established to monitor the progress of the victims and ensure any outstanding necessary counselling and medical treatment are afforded to the survivors and the bereaved. The practical arrangements for this will be discussed with the families and their representatives.
Mr. Coffey's report calls attention to criticism of the State's response at the time to meeting the needs of the survivors and bereaved in the aftermath of the disaster. Just as the technical and operational dimensions of fire prevention have changed dramatically since the Stardust fire, so too has our understanding of how to respond to the human needs and impact of a major accident or emergency.
Our response in recent times to meet the needs of the families of the five unidentified Stardust victims underscores that change in awareness. A process was put in place in conjunction with the families in question which led to the identification of their relatives. All of the relevant State agencies provided their full support throughout that process and met all the costs arising. A counselling facility was made available and assistance was provided with private funeral arrangements.
A similar spirit will inform the arrangements for the committee the Government is to establish so as to monitor the medical and counselling needs. I will not pretend to know what the impact of Mr. Coffey's findings and this motion will be on individual victims or their families. Members of the committee have come here this evening to witness this motion and I hope this may provide some resolution.
None of us can put ourselves in the places of the bereaved or presume to know how they might feel, but some have responded to indicate that the findings have brought some small amount of closure. I hope that is the case. It goes without saying that our words are of little consequence against the enormity of the loss but, on behalf of the Government, I wish to express our deep and continuing sympathy at the impact of this tragedy.