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.