The Irish Times view on the Stardust inquests: vindication for the families at last

The medical cause of their loved ones’ deaths has been determined previously, but for the first time they now know for a fact that what happened was a consequence of the law being broken

The coroner’s inquests in which the jury delivered its verdicts yesterday represented the best chance for the families of the 48 people, aged 16 to 27, who died in the Stardust tragedy to understand how their loved ones died in the early hours of Saturday, February 14th, 1981.

The question had remained unanswered in many respects despite initial coroner’s inquests and a tribunal of inquiry chaired by Mr Justice Ronan Keane in 1981. There were two subsequent Oireachtas-appointed reviews, in 2008 and 2017.

The campaign for second inquests into the 48 deaths relied on article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which holds that everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. The families argued – and the Government accepted – that the failure of the original inquests to determine the circumstances of the deaths and causes of the fire was in breach of the convention. A similar approach was adopted by the families of the victims of the Ballymurphy shootings in Belfast and the Hillsborough disaster in Britain in their search for justice.

The verdict of unlawful killing returned in every case by the jury yesterday is a bittersweet moment for the families. The medical cause of their loved ones’ deaths has been determined previously, but for the first time they now know for a fact that the deaths were the consequence of the law being broken. They have waited 43 years to hear this.


What happens next is an open question. Dr Myra Cullinane, the coroner who presided over the inquests, is obliged to inform the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) of the jury’s verdicts. However, a new investigation is not a given. No criminal prosecutions have been brought to date against anybody arising from the Stardust fire, although more than 1,400 statements were taken by gardaí, and two files were sent to the DPP.

The families would also appear to have limited options under civil law. A statutory compensation tribunal was established by the State in the 1980s, and the last award was made by it in 1991. It is usual practice in such tribunals for the claimants to waive any right to other civil process.

In the absence of any further legal avenues opening up for them, the lasting significance of yesterday’s verdicts may be their vindication of the persistent and dignified search for answers by the families from a State that at times seemed less than willing to face its obligations.

The extent to which the families’ wounds remained unhealed was evidenced by the poignant and powerful “pen portraits” of the victims read into the record by family members at the start of the inquests.

If yesterday’s verdicts finally bring their families some peace, then this will have been long overdue.