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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 23 Feb 2022

Vol. 283 No. 2

Coroners (Provision for Jury Selection) (Amendment) Bill 2022: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I welcome the families of the victims of the Stardust fire to the Chamber. I am proud to introduce the Bill but I would prefer that it was not necessary to do so. The purpose of this Bill is to amend the Coroners Act of 1962 to facilitate a transparent process of jury selection similar to the process that relates to criminal court cases.

Before I speak directly to the Bill, I would like to set out the context in which I am bringing it to the House. Over 20 years ago, the Department of Justice recognised that the inquest system was not fit for purpose and established a high-level working group to look at how this could be addressed. In 2000, that expert working group produced a 172-page document outlining the main concerns with the coronial process. The report called for radical reform and a major reconfiguration of the service. They rightly pointed out that the coroners service is a service for the living and that it should serve to reassure society as a whole and inform and support those who have been bereaved.

The reform process should be evolutionary. At that time, they said it was important that it would be completed by 2020. Unfortunately, the only attempt to act on the findings of this report was in 2007 when the then Minister for Justice, Senator McDowell, brought forward a coroner's Bill. That Bill lapsed with the fall of the then Government, and there appears to be no appetite since then to take on the necessary reform of the inquest process.

In 2021, through frustration at the lack of progress and informed by their experience of working with people directly affected by the failings of coronial process, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, produced an updated report. This report, like the one of 2000, found that families had experienced further trauma and hardship as a direct consequence of the investigations that followed and that our system can compound and even aggravate the suffering of those affected by the tragic loss of life. The families who are sitting in the gallery behind me tonight would attest to that fact. The initial inquest that took place into the fire at the Stardust was rushed and the eminent Professor Phil Scraton, author of the ICCL report, said that it was an abject failure. To add further insult to injury, the judicial inquiry that followed was, according to Professor Scraton, appalling. That inquiry made a finding of probably arson, a finding that cast blame on a whole community. That finding stood on the public record for 28 years. It was only through the refusal of the families to accept this scurrilous and unfounded accusation that it was finally overturned by an independent review. It was that same tireless determination that has brought us to the point at which we are today, when new inquests will be heard into the deaths of the 48 young people who tragically lost their lives that terrible night.

It has been a privilege for me to get to know many of the families and to support them in their battle for truth, because they showed an enormous strength of character in the face of what has been systematic abuse by the State for 41 years. From the manner in which they were informed of their loved ones' death, to the inquests that followed, the whitewash inquires, the insulting compensation and counselling schemes that followed, the families have been failed by this State again and again. What has not failed the families is the support of the people of Ireland and that has been unwavering. Anyone over a certain age in Ireland remembers the Stardust.

When the families embarked on the truth postcard campaign, no matter what town in Ireland they were in, people offered their support and to share their story of where they were that night or when the news broke of the scale of the tragedy. Others spoke of their guilt of how they were they but had escaped, or how they were lucky because they should have been there that night but were called into work. In one case, a man told me that he fell asleep before he went out. People took postcards to put in their taxi and shops, and to get their friends and families to sign. The Dublin Fire Brigade, which remains steadfast in its loyalty to the families, secured thousands of signatures. In a matter of weeks, 48,000 postcards were signed and delivered to the Attorney General. It could easily have been 480,000 such was the level of support for the families' campaign for justice.

In September 2019, the Attorney General recognised the overwhelming public interest in this case and rightly agreed to open new inquests. For the families, it finally feels like justice will prevail and the truth will out. One of the first requests on the back of that decision by the Attorney General was that any new inquest held would be human rights compliant. A commitment on this request was given by the Minister's predecessor at the time. Further assurances were sought, and commitments were given by all party leaders during the 2020 election. The reason for this was obvious. It was because the radical reform that was recommended 20 years ago and, again, last year has not happened. In fact, it has not even begun to happen. Despite the excellent work done to date by the senior Dublin coroner, Dr. Myra Cullinane, especially in her recent dismissal of the audacious and downright disgraceful attempt by the Butterly legal team to predetermine the outcome of the inquest, some of the concerns we raised when we submitted that request about human rights compliance have been validated. The issue of the provision of legal aid took months to resolve, yet the issue of cost being a barrier to justice was one of the issues flagged in the first report and in recommendation 22 of the ICCL report. How did the State think it would be appropriate that after 41 years fighting for justice, the families would be expected to send in their payslips and details of the car they drove just so they could access long-awaited justice?

That leads me to the reason we are here today. I am proud to introduce this Bill but I should not have to do so. The Stardust inquest will be the largest and longest inquest in the history of the State. It will be watched around the world. Last week's 41st anniversary was broadcast in numerous countries and covered in many newspapers internationally. Unless steps are taken urgently, the Government will send a message out to the world that An Garda Síochána, who are, let us not forget, a party to this inquest and will have to answer for the manner in which it preserved the scene of the fire and investigated it afterwards, would be the same body to select the jury. That is the message the Government is sending out to the world, that there will be no formal transparent process and that the gardaí would present the panel of jurors. When I asked the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, about this recently, the response was that there is no legal requirement for a jury-led inquest and that somehow having a jury of one's peers is a privilege and not a right. I commend Dr. Cullinane on her repeated assertions that she does not accept that a juryless inquest is appropriate. What is more surprising about the fact that the Government is prepared to countenance an inquest without a jury is that when the Attorney General granted the new inquest, he specifically drew parallels with the Hillsborough inquest. That was not only because there are similarities in the way they were both working-class communities, communities that were initially blamed for what happened, that they were lied to repeatedly by the State and that successive Governments tried for years to cover up what happened, but he also drew parallels because it was the jury that played a crucial role in the Hillsborough inquest.

The Bill I present today is a simple piece of legislation. It amends the Coroners Act 1962 to allow the coroner to select a jury using the provisions of the Juries Act 1976. The jurors would be identified from the electoral register, provided that they were eligible under section 6 and 7 of the Juries Act, and they would be summoned by the county registrar. The selection of persons on the panel would be made by open balloting in open court and each party to the inquest would be able to challenge, without cause, a maximum of seven jurors. Essentially, it would give effect to recommendations 44 and 45 of the ICCL report. What the Bill does not address is the matter of income protection for jurors. That is not to say that I do not agree with that. Jurors at the Stardust inquest might be in situ for months without any income protection, and we cannot expect jurors to survive on air while they fulfil public service obligations while on jury duty.

I appeal to the Minister to give effect to the contents of this Bill and to take on board the legitimate concerns regarding income protection of jurors at this inquest. I also call on her to give a firm commitment to the families who sit in the Gallery that under no circumstances will it be a case of an inquest without a jury. I would like the Minister to reflect on the message that it sends out to not only the families and the huge swell of public support they have behind them, but to the world, if we do not have a transparent jury selection process. She has an opportunity to draw a line under the systematic abuse that the families have endured for decades. She does not have the same baggage that others in the Government have. She is a new generation of politician, so I ask her to please prove that she brings with that a new generation of justice.

I welcome the families to the Public Gallery today. We are honoured by their presence.

Ar dtús báire, ba mhaith liom tacú leis an mBille atá os ár gcomhair anocht. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus ar ndóigh na teaghlaigh atá linn sa ghailearaí. The Minister is welcome to the House for this important debate.

It is important because any opportunity to reflect on issues of justice and rights is always exactly that. First and foremost, all our thoughts are with those who died, those who survived that awful fire and those families who lost loved ones. Many of them are gathered with us here in the Seanad Chamber today. I am very proud of my colleague, Senator Boylan, and her determination in bringing this legislation before us today. She has been a steadfast advocate and a champion voice in the European Parliament and in the Oireachtas for the Stardust families. I know they recognise and appreciate all of her solidarity, support and hard work over many years. The introduction and the intention behind this succinct legislation is simple. While I appreciate that all of the consequences, the trauma, the pain, the hurt and the loss associated with the Stardust fire are anything but simple, what this small, short Bill seeks to do is very simple in its intent. As Senator Boylan has said, I am equally proud that we are bringing this legislation before Members today but I agree with her that we should not have to. What does that say about a system that would hear the pleas of long-suffering families who want the fullest and most transparent inquest process and not give it to them? In my role as an elected representative I have had cause to deal with many families campaigning for truth and justice, some of them for as long as the Stardust families and some of them, for even longer. I have also journeyed with some of them in more recent years towards the uplifting experience of having an inquest and having the memories of their loved ones vindicated. I have a very minor and humble insight into what this means to the families but I know that none of us can appreciate fully just what a fully human rights-compliant and transparent inquest would mean to the families.

We have an opportunity here with this legislation, and not just today because I do not want this to be a stand-alone debate. If we are serious about supporting this Bill, then we have to action it. We must ensure that we do not come in here today and say all of the right things, including that we support or do not oppose this Bill but then allow it to hang in the air. There are real time constraints that matter in relation to the implementation of this legislation that would allow for a jury process in relation to the Stardust inquest. I hope that we will do the right thing by passing this legislation today and I am confident we will. However, I do not think any of us can allow it to remain on the shelf. We must act and we must act quickly.

The importance of a human rights-compliant inquest process cannot be overstated. As I said, I had cause, on a number of occasions - sometimes in my capacity as an elected representative, sometimes just walking in as an ordinary citizen - to attend the Ballymurphy massacre inquest. I know the families of the Stardust fire have the support of the Ballymurphy families and, indeed, the Bloody Sunday families. The Cathaoirleach joined me for a particularly poignant day when the families had the opportunity to read pen portraits about their loved ones at the Ballymurphy massacre inquest. What that meant to them to have that space and opportunity to do that and to have the necessary counselling support and the support of the courts. I want to make the point about just how important that is, and just how important it is that the families, as stakeholders, have that space and opportunity.

In concluding my remarks, we just passed a motion to establish two citizens' assemblies before this debate started. That is because we see the merit of engaging our peers, listening to one another and allowing citizens to have the space and a stake in issues of importance. The families of the Stardust fire are not looking for anything exceptional here. They are not looking for anything privileged or anything to which they should not be fundamentally entitled. Senator Boylan has outlined clearly the rationale behind this motion. I sincerely hope that we can agree on it tonight. However, as I said, we must ensure that it goes on the books to ensure that when the Stardust inquest begins, it has an open and transparent process attached to it. We must ensure that that is jury-centred and victim-led. I second the motion.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I welcome, in particular, the families of the Stardust tragedy. I sympathise with them on their terrible loss and, indeed, with the fact that they have had to journey on a long road, and one that has gone on for 41 years. They are still seeking answers. That is too long. I can only speak on behalf of myself and my party. I certainly will do all I can, and I am sure the Minister will as well, to ensure that the families get what they are entitled to, which is closure.

I preface the few words I have to say with those comments before continuing. From a Fianna Fáil perspective, we are certainly not opposing this Bill. I compliment my colleagues across the way on bringing forward this legislation. Anybody who brings forward in good faith any legislation or any action that will result in the families getting closure is to be commended. I have no problem in doing that. I am advised that the Bill, as is currently presented, will require amendments. I am also advised that there are significant technical conflicts in the Bill, as currently drafted, with existing legislation, including the Coroners Act 1962, the Juries Act 1976 and the Courts Service Act 1998. I have no doubt the Minister will elaborate further on those issues in her contribution. In light of the concerns and particular circumstances of the Stardust inquest, the Government is considering if any appropriate amendments to the law might be required to make special provision for jury selection. In this instance, it is vitally important that the work is completed as quickly as possible to ensure that there is no further delay with the inquests. The current position, as the families well know, is that the Stardust inquests were directed by the then Attorney General in December 2019 in accordance with law. The coroner has not yet empanelled a jury. It is my understanding that she has not indicated an issue with the current jury selection procedures. Since the Attorney General recommended the first inquest into the Stardust tragedy, the Government has ensured that the coroner and the families are provided with all necessary supports. It is only right and proper that this should be the case. The coroner, Dr. Cullinane, has begun work. I understand that 11 pre-inquest hearings have been completed to date, with the 12th one scheduled to take place in mid-March. As I said in my opening comments, I find heartbreaking the road that the families have had to travel, to be quite honest. It is terrible to think that the families have had tragedy upon tragedy heaped upon them. First, they suffered the tragedy of losing loved ones, then they had to travel on a journey to find out the truth of what happened those loved ones. There is no excuse for that. Successive Governments need to look at themselves in the mirror as to why the families are sitting in the Chamber today, 41 years after their lives were destroyed and turned upside down. It is important that we look back and learn from looking back. We must also let today be the first step in us all working together to ensure that the families can finally have the truth and move on with their lives, knowing that they have done all they possibly can to ensure that the memories of their loved ones, who left prematurely, will not have gone in vain, and that they have done all they can to ensure that the truth is out there for everyone to see.

I look forward to the Minister's comments in that regard. I hope the families will leave here this evening with a pep in their step, knowing that every Member of the Houses will work tooth and nail to ensure that that day will be fast-tracked as quickly as is humanly possible.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus roimh an mBille seo. I take this opportunity to welcome the families. I have no doubt but that this is not their first visit to Leinster House. They have had plenty of meetings over the years with various Governments, Ministers and taoisigh, and they are still fighting for justice. I wish them a speedy conclusion, at least from this vantage point, to these issues.

I was a member of the Cabinet when a former Attorney General agreed to a fresh inquest into the Stardust tragedy. I was only six, I think, when the tragedy happened. I was too young to remember it, but I have certainly read about it and seen footage of its aftermath. It comes up quite often on "Reeling in the Years", an excellent programme on a wide range of issues. Anyone not initially familiar with the tragedy would become familiar with it from those scenes. The incident was harrowing, unbelievable and so cruel. The aftermath and the verdict at the time were particularly cruel.

I welcome the Bill Senator Boylan has introduced. There is absolutely merit in looking at jury selection in cases such as this. Reference has been made to a Bill published by Senator McDowell when he was a Minister. That legislation would have dealt with many of the issues relating to jury selection. A combination of measures in both Bills, with the assistance of the Department and the Attorney General, could fast-track a definite course of action in respect of this matter. Jury selection in these cases seems to be at the discretion of the Garda. I have heard that in certain areas the same or a small group of people come in for every inquest, which is not the way things should be done. It should be similar to the practice for juries for trials. It is important that this be changed and that people have full confidence in the process. I therefore support the Bill. I hope that the Minister will support it, certainly in its spirit, and that, together with what the former Minister, Senator McDowell, published, we can come to a better system of selection for inquests.

I spoke previously about inquests, on a Private Member's Bill in the Lower House, and mentioned a scenario that arose. I wish to put it on the record again if the Minister is looking at changes and issues in respect of coroners, albeit not specifically in respect of jury selection in this case. I came across a case in which a next of kin, through some sorts of mistakes, was not invited to the inquest into her own mother's passing. I wish to put on the record that this did not happen in Galway; I will not say where it happened. It caused huge upset to that individual, who was looking forward to speaking her mind and giving her thoughts to an inquest into her mother's passing. The inquest was held and was over by the time she found out about it. That was heartbreaking for the person involved. It seemed to be some sort of oversight involving the Garda telling a family member and that word not getting through. What happened was unbelievable. That girl was an only child. Her father had died previously and her mother had died in this case. She was not notified of the inquest. I raise that case just in case there are changes down the line in respect of coroners. It is an issue that has to be rectified.

Getting back to the scenario at hand, there are issues. The points Senator Boylan raised about ensuring that the process is fully transparent have validity. The families were not satisfied, society was not satisfied and the Dáil and the Oireachtas were not satisfied with the original decision, so it is important in the case of this fresh inquest that the decision has been made that there must be full confidence in the process. That starts with a jury in respect of which people can have confidence its members are picked fairly and transparently, and randomly, or however it can be done, as is done in other cases. I hope that the Minister can take on board the spirit of the Bill and work with it to provide a speedy conclusion to this too-long-running saga and that justice will finally be received.

I note the tireless determination of the families. It is an honour to have them here in the Chamber. They are very welcome here. These are their Houses. I am also very proud to call Senator Boylan a colleague. I commend her on her work, and I am proud to co-sign this legislation.

As Senator Boylan stated, the Bill involves a basic amendment to the Coroners Act 1962 to deal with the transparent process of jury selection, as we have in criminal court cases. More than 20 years ago - it is hard to imagine that 2000 is well over 20 years ago - the Department of Justice recognised that the inquest system was not fit for purpose and it established a working group to look at how that could be addressed. In 2021, due to frustration with the ongoing lack of progress and the experience of people directly affected by the failings of the coroners process, the ICCL produced an updated report. That report set out 52 recommendations. Recommendations 44 and 45 of the report call for juries to be randomly selected from the electoral register and, in high-profile or contested cases, for lawyers representing interested parties to be able to challenge the constitution of the jury.

The Stardust inquest will be the largest inquest in the history of the State. It ill be watched around the world. The bare minimum that should be expected is that the evidence will be heard by a jury that is selected in a manner that is transparent and representative of wider society. Likewise, any suggestion that an inquest of this size could be heard without a jury, a suggestion recently made by the Government, should be dismissed under section 40 of the Coroners Act. The Bill allows for the simple and transparent selection process of the jury at the Stardust inquest, similar to the jury selection for a criminal court case. Under the current inquest process, the jury is selected by An Garda Síochána. As I said, this inquest will be the largest in the history of the State and will be watched internationally. At a bare minimum, it should be heard by a jury selected in a manner that is transparent and representative of wider society. It would not be appropriate for An Garda Síochána, which is part of this inquest, to select that jury.

This is simple legislation. I am proud to co-sign it. The families have had enough of judge-led investigations. They have a right to have the evidence heard by a jury of their peers. My understanding is that the coroner involved in this case wants a jury. I know that Senator Boylan will come in at the end of the debate to expand on that point. I welcome the families again to their Houses and thank them for coming. I am proud to co-sign the Bill and I appreciate that the Government will not oppose it.

Sorry. I had to take the speakers listed out of sequence because Senator Warfield is taking over from me in the Chair. Next is Senator Moynihan.

I welcome the families here this evening. I wish to pay tribute to Senator Boylan, who I have watched over the years, as a former MEP and now as a Senator, working with the Stardust families and advocating for them on both national and European levels. Her commitment to this cause cannot be questioned.

It goes without saying that the fact the families have been left without answers and forced to continue to fight for justice for this length of time is one of the great shames in our country. While the Government is not opposing this Bill, I ask that it takes a serious look at it and tries to enact it before it is too late. As Senator Ó Donnghaile said, there is a time constraint with this. This affects not just the Stardust victims and the inquest into that, but it affects a wider group of people as well as the inquest system. It is important the Bill is in place for a group of people who have had to fight for truth and justice for 41 years.

As Senator Boylan said, this is a case very similar to Hillsborough, in that people were blamed for what befell them at that Valentine’s disco. I watched the Hillsborough inquest and saw the relief on the families' faces when they were finally able to point to what happened and when the truth came out.

This Bill is simple, although the Fianna Fáil speaker, Senator Gallagher, spoke about a number of things that it could impact and affect. It is an amendment to the Coroners Act, which is an existing Act. If that is the case, I hope the Government will look at that and in a timely manner bring forward an alternative.

There are two issues that remain outstanding. The first is the selection of jury and the second is the remuneration of that jury. It is simply wrong when it comes to an inquest of this size, scale and potential length that juries would not be selected as they would be in criminal cases and would not be remunerated. It is only right that people have income protection for the effort and time. It cannot happen if the possibility remains that this inquest, in theory, can happen without a jury. For these reasons, we support the provisions in the Bill that aim to compensate jurors, which is very important, as well as in respect of jury selection. If that is not provided for, the potential pool of jurors may be reduced even further and that is no way to run an inquest such as this given its size, scale and length and the fact it is 41 years after justice should have been done. The victims, survivors, families and local community in Artane deserve just that.

The previous Attorney General who is now Supreme Court judge approved the call for this inquest while noting previously that there has been an insufficient inquiry into how the deaths occurred. I have no doubt the coroner will make every attempt to ensure that this does not happen again, but that has to be supported by the State and in terms of how the inquest is designed.

Last year we had the families left ineligible for legal aid. To be fair, that has been addressed, but it never should have happened. Now we have the issue relating to jury selection and compensation. It is unacceptable that the families of the Stardust fire victims seem to come against barrier after barrier. The stress of all of these oversights and delays adds up. It adds insult to injury and it has added up over the past 41 years.

Essentially, this comes down to establishing the truth. Those affected by the Stardust tragedy have the right to the truth and the respect that they deserve in finding out the truth about what happened that Valentine’s night. They have consistently not been treated with respect. That is continuing to this day by way of those oversights in relation to legal aid and jury selection.

We fully support this Bill. There is no comfort without justice and the truth. The ball is in the Government’s court to bring forward an amendment to the Coroners Act to allow this to be dealt with in a timely manner and to finally, after 41 years, give the families the justice they deserve.

I apologise for being brief in my comments, but I wanted to contribute as I was very moved. Senator Boylan has championed this issue so passionately and consistently. She has raised it in every aspect and has looked, campaigned and pushed for justice. I want to commend Senator Boylan, in particular, on this issue. It is one of the issues of genuine heart, love and drive for justice that I have seen moved through the Seanad.

I want to indicate formally the Civil Engagement Group’s support for the Bill and our support for the importance of ensuring that justice is done and delivered in a way which is true to the public. The public needs to see it being done and to see a jury selected in the same way as in a criminal case and to know it is a genuine cross-section of the public coming forward.

The families have been failed by instruments of the State and by instruments of justice in the past. It is very important that this process and the inquest reflects the full public and it is not seen as being owned or controlled by any of the instruments which have perhaps fallen short in the past. In that regard, it is vital that there is a proper, appropriate public selection process and the same process that would apply in a criminal case. This is a small change and the Minister has made bigger and more dramatic changes, and often changes for justice, in fairness, during her tenure. Again, this is a small and real change that could be made.

Again, the issue of the battle for legal aid has been so substantial that it should certainly not be the case again that we would see an issue of finances affecting who can participate in a jury or who might participate in this. We need to make sure there is no question in regard to structures of power already or financial limitations serving to limit this being a genuine instrument of justice in terms of the inquiries. Again, I urge the Minister to support – I know she will not oppose it - and deliver the changes we need to make sure justice is finally given and a light shown, as needs to be done, on these issues. Again, I commend the proposers of the Bill and welcome those in the Gallery.

I welcome the families here today. This is one of a long number of traumas that they have faced. They should not have to be here today. That is the reality of it.

I grew up in Raheny and I was seven years old that night and I remember it very well. However, no one has the experience that any of the families have in relation to the events of that day. I was listening to the debate in my office and I heard some of the Senators say it is shocking that we are still here 41 years later. Actually, we are only starting a process 41 years on.

The families have been waiting for justice all of that time. Although I am glad we are finally coming to the beginning of that, it should not, as I said, have taken this long. The original inquest finding was very disappointing, to say the least. There is now finally an opportunity to establish the facts and give families the truth about what happened that night.

However, there have been so many obstacles and delays in the process, whether it is around legal aid, the choice of venue or resourcing. All of these things have played a part in almost retraumatising people. So often we come in here and talk about retraumatising people and it is through our legislative process and often through our juries because of the selection process. I absolutely appreciate and support Senator Boylan’s Bill and what she is trying to achieve.

There are often technical issues with Bills and that is what later Stages are for. I hope to hear from the Minister what she can do to replicate this in some way, if the technical aspects of it are as great as we have been led to believe. Some of these things can be done and can be achieved. I know that 47 of the 48 families were deemed to be above the threshold for legal aid. This seems quite surprising. It shows that the level of trauma the families are going through is not being taken into account and it should be. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, signed regulations to allow legal aid on an exceptional basis for the Stardust inquest regardless of means. I hope to see progress with this. It is a very good move.

Finding a venue has been a challenge. Why is this the case? The Dáil and Seanad were in the convention centre. That happened pretty fast. The pre-inquest hearings were in the RDS. Almost inexplicably, that lease is coming to an end this month. I know the Minister has guaranteed another venue. This is trauma after trauma. No one should have to fight this hard for justice. We call ourselves a developed country but people fight for their own justice and have to advocate for themselves. We are all here today trying to advocate as well but we should not be here doing so 41 years later.

I thank the families for coming along. I am thinking of all of those who are not here this evening. There are the 48 who lost their lives but more than 200 people were hurt that night as well. I am thinking of all of them. Listening to debate after debate and finding venues has an impact on the hundreds of families and on all of us who lived around that time and who used to go past the Stardust and who saw it play out in front of us.

I welcome the families. It is important they are here this evening to witness the Bill. I commend my colleague, Senator Lynn Boylan, not just on this evening but on her tireless work over many years on this issue in support of the families. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news about the Stardust. I was getting up for school at home in Westmeath. I was 15 years of age. My father told me something awful had happened in Dublin. I remember the look of horror on his face as he listened to the radio that morning. It was the horror any parent or human being would feel when hearing about the unspeakable events unfolding. It was and remains the biggest disaster the State has ever known.

I do not think anyone could have foreseen how those 48 victims and their families would have been blackguarded, ignored, disrespected and treated with contempt by the State for more than four decades. I salute their courage, resilience and fortitude in never giving up on their quest for truth and justice. At the heart of their struggle is that small word we rarely hear mentioned in the Chamber, which is "class". Does anyone seriously think that if these events happened to residents from leafy middle-class suburbs in south Dublin they would have been left waiting more than 40 years for justice? As the victims were from the working-class community of Artane, they were effectively disregarded by the State. Worse than this, they were stigmatised by the 1981 tribunal with the deeply flawed conclusion that the fire had been started deliberately. This conclusion was subsequently overturned 28 years later but the damage had been done. As one Stardust relative said, calling those children arsonists was the worst thing they ever did.

The obstacles the State has put in the way of these relatives has been detailed by my colleague, Senator Boylan. It took a sit-in in Government Buildings to force an independent review. After a nationwide campaign of 48,000 signed postcards, they won the right to fresh inquests for their loved ones. Then followed the scandalous Government stance on legal aid for the families, an issue only resolved after the threat of a judicial review based on the European Convention on Human Rights. Respectfully I say to my colleague Senator Gallagher, when he says families have been provided with all of the necessary supports it was only after one hell of a battle on the part of the families.

I will quote survivor Antoinette Keegan. She said "we want all the obstacles that’s in our way to be removed so when the inquest is ready to start, that we’re up and running and ready to go." She also said, "There are too many undue delays in the whole lot of this and it is time now that they all stop" and that "The inquest will not be proceeding if we don’t have a jury." I do not think anyone here can disagree with one word of this. The idea the inquest would not have a jury is entirely unacceptable because judge-led investigations have failed these people.

The ball is very much in the Minister's court. She needs not only to not oppose the Bill but she needs to embrace it. She needs to give a commitment here to fast-track it. I acknowledge this is a request Senator Kyne made in his speech also. This is so it can become law in good time for the inquest. The Government needs to do better. The response cited by the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, earlier that there is no legal requirement for a jury-led inquest is really insulting to the people behind me. We have to do better. The Minister has an opportunity to do better this evening. How could she countenance the possibility of this inquest not having a jury? Does she not have a solemn duty, given what these families have been through, to ensure there is a jury, that it is selected openly and in a transparent manner and that it is adequately compensated? Is this not actually the least the Minister can do?

The most disappointing aspect of this, and I hope it will not happen and I am genuinely looking forward, as are all colleagues in the Chamber, to the Minister's response, would be to have this debate and then for nothing to happen as a response. There is a Bill here. It is a simple Bill. If there are changes required, let us make those changes. We know how quickly legislation can be passed through these two Houses. We saw it during Covid. We know that ten years ago, legislation was passed for the banks in just 48 hours. These people have been waiting 41 years. Here is an opportunity for the Minister, as a reforming Minister, to do the right thing this evening and endorse the Bill, not just not oppose it but say she will endorse it and ensure there will be a jury, that it will be fairly selected and ensure the inquests go ahead as, I hope, each and every one of us want them to. I look forward to the words of the Minister. Please take this opportunity and embrace the Bill and support the families sitting behind us.

I thank Senator Boylan for bringing forward the Bill. I join colleagues in welcoming family members to the Seanad. I acknowledge each and every one of them. I acknowledge what they have been through and continue to go through and I wish to say how sorry I am that after 41 years, we are still here. I acknowledge that 41 years ago, 48 young people went out on a night out, as we all have done, to enjoy themselves and celebrate St. Valentine's Day and never came home. As colleagues have said, more than 200 other people were injured in the fire and this had an impact not only on their families but on a very close-knit community in north Dublin. It has marked the community with tragedy forever. While I was not alive at the time it happened, I know and have seen since then that the country has grieved with each and every one of the families. We sincerely admire their determination in keeping the memories of their loved ones alive in the years since. Each of the 48 young people was unique with their own hopes, ambitions and dreams. All were taken too soon and in the cruellest of ways. The reverberations of their loss have been felt through the generations of their families. I have no doubt it has been a heavy loss to bear for each and every one of them.

The families have spoken of their need for their voices to be heard to speak for and about their loved ones. The decision by the former Attorney General in September 2019 to direct fresh inquests into their deaths gives the families this opportunity.

The pen portraits that will be heard at inquests will be a key part of that process. Just knowing the names of the 48 young people is not enough. In order to fully acknowledge what the families have lost, we need to understand who they were as people. We need to learn of their lost potential and the devastating impact this has had on their families, friends and wider communities.

Several challenges have arisen in arranging an inquest of this scale and complexity. My Department has genuinely tried to address them constructively and in as sensitive a way as possible. My role and that of my Department is to support the senior Dublin coroner, Dr. Myra Cullinane, who has been given the task of carrying out the inquests. It is important to state that, as I know everyone present is aware, the coroner is, by law, fully independent in the conduct of these inquests. We are here to support her in her work. Since the Attorney General directed that fresh inquests into the Stardust tragedy are required, my Department and I have again tried to ensure the coroner and, indeed, the family members - those who are here and those who are not - are provided with all the necessary supports. This includes the fit-out of the bespoke Covid-compliant courtroom in the RDS. A Senator asked about the delivery, venue and complexities. Unfortunately, Covid has compounded those complexities.

Access to civil legal aid has also been provided for the families. I again acknowledge that took longer than people would like, but it is available regardless of people's means and on an exceptional basis. Earlier this month, a new venue for the Stardust inquest was confirmed, namely, the Pillar Room in the Rotunda Hospital. This follows extensive engagement on the part of my Department with the Office of Public Works in order to secure an appropriate venue in advance of the expiry of the RDS contract at the end of the month. I am pleased the new venue has been warmly welcomed by the families.

My Department has developed a website for the inquest, assigned additional staff to the office of the Dublin coroner and facilitated the appointment of legal and expert guidance to try to support the coroner in her important work. Dr. Cullinane has begun that work. As Senators outlined, 11 pre-inquest hearings have been completed to date, with the 12th scheduled to take place in mid-March. Where challenges have arisen, we have worked with the coroner and her team to overcome them, with the needs of the families always at the forefront of our minds. I know the motivation of the Senators in sponsoring this Bill is based on the needs of the families and that is why the Government is not opposing the Bill.

I am keen to find an appropriate resolution to the issues raised, not just one that complies with the requirements of coronial law and the general principle that service on a jury is part of every citizen's civic duty. I am also mindful of the fact that a number of pre-inquest hearings have been held and certain matters have been determined. Of course, I want to be sensitive to the needs of each and every member of the families. In light of the concerns raised and the particular circumstances of the Stardust inquests, I am considering if appropriate amendments to the law can be made to require to make special provision for jury selection in this instance. I reassure the families and the sponsoring Senators that this work will be completed as quickly as possible so as to ensure there is no delay to the inquests

As my colleague outlined, Senator McDowell, during his period as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, published the Coroners Bill 2007, which, among other things, proposed changes to the operation of juries at inquests. I assure Senators and the House that I will give his proposals, as well as those in the Bill before us, full consideration as we try to find a resolution that will allow the Stardust inquests to proceed in a fair way.

When he directed the new Stardust inquests, the then Attorney General did so in line with the current coronial law under the Coroners Act 1962. Section 43 of that Act prescribes the method of jury selection for an inquest. As has been stated, there is no legal basis to summon one. In practice, juries are not empanelled for many inquests. However, I do understand the Dublin coroner considers it to be necessary in the Stardust inquests and I will not stand in her way. I want to make that clear this evening. It is important to understand the function of a jury at an inquest is significantly different from that of a jury in a civil or criminal trial. No matters of liability or exoneration may be pronounced either by the jury or the coroner at an inquest, but I do understand the significance and importance in this instance and the reason that Members and the families who are here wish for it to apply.

As I stated, the Government will not oppose the Bill, although, as outlined, there are technical difficulties with it. There are implications for a number of other Acts. We are considering the Bill and others. We want to make sure we can progress as quickly as possible.

As I stated, if the coroner decides, as she has, that a jury is necessary, I will not prevent that from happening. What I will do, as I have tried to do throughout this entire process and in the past year and a half, is to work with Senators and the families to support them at every stage possible. I assure them it will not be the case that nothing happens after this evening. We will work speedily to make sure we can resolve this matter. I again assure the families that I will work with them and make sure everything we do can to support them, and the coroner in her work, is done as quickly as possible.

I thank the Minister for her very open statement and her reassurances that she will work to achieve what is in the spirit of the Bill. I know the Bill is not perfect, given the nature of the issue and timescale in which it was presented, but at least the Minister is listening to the concerns that have been raised by the families. I know the coroner herself, Dr. Myra Cullinane, has facilitated the broadest scope or interpretation of the law when it comes to the Stardust inquest because she is working in a flawed system. It is not just that we need to fix this issue for the Stardust inquest and the very specific concerns relating to jury selection; we need to go back to the recommendations made by the independent working group in 2000 and the 52 recommendations made by the ICCL in 2021. We need to heed what they are saying. Ireland is an outlier. We are not serving people well with our inquest system. We are failing them, re-traumatising them and making the circumstances of their bereavement worse. I hope the Minister takes those recommendations on board but there is an obvious time constraint in the context of addressing the issues we are discussing today.

The coroner has done as much as she can in terms of interpretation of the law. She has invited new witnesses who did not give evidence at the previous judge-led inquiries or the original inquests to come forward. She has facilitated the use of pen portraits which, as Senator Ó Donnghaile stated, had a profound effect at the Ballymurphy inquest. Not only did they put faces and names to the victims, they gave them personalities and memories and made it clear that these were people who walked the earth and had lives that were taken from them that night. I again commend the coroner on facilitating those pen portraits in the Stardust inquest process. What she has clearly stated in the pre-inquest hearings is that she will not accept a non-jury inquest but she also is saying her hands are tied in the context of the selection process and she needs legislative change in order to fix that.

I feel reassured that the Minister has heard the concerns expressed tonight, is giving assurances there will not be a non-jury inquest and that she will work speedily to ensure there is no delay to the inquest. She has also assured us that the concerns in respect of the selection process and the income protection for jurors will be addressed. I welcome that and thank her for giving those assurances to the families. I again thank all present for coming here tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 1 March 2022.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar athló ar 7.49 p.m. go dtí 10.30 a.m. Dé Déardaoin, an 24 Feabhra 2022.
The Seanad adjourned at 7.49 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 24 February 2022.