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Have we ditched the Stardust-era stereotype that the working classes are wild and reckless?

Reports by highly respected judges unknowingly unleashed demons of prejudice that were hidden in the Id of the Irish establishment. The lingering question is whether those devils have really been exorcised

Once might be carelessness; twice begins to look like unconscious bias. To come to terms with the full import of last week’s inquest verdicts of unlawful killing of 48 young people in the Stardust fire of 1981, we must recall the false narrative to which the State ended up lending its weight: working-class people are wild, reckless and the authors of their own calamities.

In the early 1980s, two highly respected Irish judges published reports of tribunals of inquiry they had chaired. Both reports dealt with the lives and deaths of people from the supposed lower orders of Irish society.

Both in effect exonerated the more powerful people and blamed the less powerful ones. Both have now unravelled in ways that should provoke a profound reflection on how our society works.

The original Stardust inquiry, chaired by the High Court judge Ronan Keane, issued its report in 1982. Three years later, the Kerry Babies tribunal, chaired by another High Court judge, Kevin Lynch, published its findings. Both reports were radically wrong.


Last week’s verdict completely overturns Judge Keane’s conclusions. In 2020, the High Court declared all findings of wrongdoing made against Joanne Hayes and her family in the Lynch report to be “unfounded”. The Minister for Justice and the Garda Commissioner formally apologised to the family – and the Taoiseach will now do the same to the Stardust families.

It’s not, however, just that the State got both of these stories completely wrong. It’s that it got them wrong in precisely the same ways. It blamed the victims. Asked to consider the outrageous sufferings inflicted on so-called ordinary citizens, the State redoubled that suffering.

It didn’t just leave traumatised people to deal with their pain – it added a new layer of trauma by essentially validating fictional stories about the wildness of the lower orders. Those fictions stayed on the official record for decades: 42 years for the Stardust disaster, 35 years for the Kerry Babies.

It would be oddly comforting if we could say that the problem here lay with the individual judges. But both Keane and Lynch were men of the highest professional integrity. They were both innately decent, courteous and fair-minded. This is what makes their reports so deeply disturbing – they were not the product of individual errors or deliberate biases. They sprang from a much deeper set of instincts and assumptions.

It’s also worth saying that there’s nothing especially Irish about this mindset. It is instructive to consider it in the context of another calamity on these islands in the same decade: the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. In England, too, the working-class victims were blamed for their own deaths. Like the bereaved Stardust families, the Hillsborough families had to battle for decades (in their case 23 years) for the truth to be acknowledged.

Which tells us what this is really about: social class and social power. The kids and young adults who were incinerated at the Stardust mostly worked in shops and factories and lived in the working-class suburbs of Artane and Coolock. The Hayes family were ordinary rural farming people.

Ranged against them were people with power. The Butterly family who owned the Stardust, were heavily involved with Fianna Fáil. The paterfamilias Patrick Butterly was a member of Taca, the party’s notorious cabal of wealthy donors. As Kitty Holland pointed out in her superb coverage in The Irish Times, he recalled in his memoir that “What you had these people for was to help get things. If you wanted someone who could do something ... you asked these people.” In the Kerry Babies case, the powerful interest group was the elite murder squad of the An Garda Síochána.

In both cases, the inquiries should have examined whether these powerful people had engaged in egregious wrongdoing. They should have asked how the Stardust’s owners had flouted fire safety regulations, lined the walls with carpet tiles that emitted toxic smoke and barred the exits. They should have asked how the guards somehow got the Hayes family to sign detailed and lurid confessions to crimes they could not possibly have committed.

And yet, in both cases, the State managed to construct narratives that let these powerful people off the hook and essentially blamed the victims. As Hayes put it in her memoir, “The process of the law allowed for me to be torn asunder and every part of me examined in such a way as to denigrate and degrade me”. Judge Lynch’s report was in effect an inquiry into her morality, not into the conduct of the police.

Judge Keane’s Stardust report was equally dreadful. It concluded that the “more probable” cause of the inferno was arson – a finding that meant not only that the owners were not held responsible but that they were able to sue for and win compensation for criminal damage. The blame lay with some unknown local gurriers, who might even include some of those who lost their lives in the fire.

This finding had little basis in evidence. Keane wrote that “the evidence of a motive for a deliberate act of arson on the premises remains tenuous. It was suggested on behalf of the owners that the fire might have been started in the West Alcove with the object of diverting the doormen’s attention while a robbery ... was carried out ... there was no evidence to support this theory.”

Yet he nonetheless concluded that the fire was indeed started deliberately. How or by whom, he knew not: “The motive, the number of persons involved, their sex and age, the degree of premeditation, and the precise time at which the fire was started must remain matters for conjecture.” Astonishingly, Keane made a finding of criminal recklessness – not against the Stardust owners, but against the mysterious phantoms who carried out “this reckless criminal enterprise”.

In both cases, judges credited fictions that just happened to reinforce preconceptions about the criminality and wildness of the lower orders. By doing so in all good faith, they unknowingly unleashed demons of prejudice that were hidden in the Id of the Irish establishment. The lingering question is whether those devils have really been exorcised.