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Miriam Lord: Simon Harris acknowledges wrong done to Stardust families. Now he must do right by them

Taoiseach delivered powerful State apology for the persistent and appalling treatment of the families of the innocent young people who died in the Stardust fire

A State apology delivered on the floor of the Dáil by the Taoiseach is a remarkably powerful event.

For weary victims – unjustly and cruelly disregarded for so long before finally receiving recognition, it’s hard to imagine how emotionally overwhelming this must feel.

The moment belongs to them. It is a day the recipients will remember forever.

Being there to watch one is a privilege: a moving, memorable experience.


And being there to witness two, three, four, five ...?

Still special. Special for the touching intensity of reactions in the public gallery and the pin-drop silence in the chamber.

Familiarity with these standout occasions will never breed contempt, but it eventually breeds suspicion.

As the Stardust families graciously accepted Simon Harris’s genuine apology on behalf of the nation, veterans of these public acts of repentance were already looking ahead.

The hard work starts now.

Not for the Stardust families. They put in the hard yards over four decades – some of them died doing it. Their work should be done now and we really hope it is.

It’s the State’s turn now.

Our last four heads of government stood where Simon Harris stood on Tuesday and, with equal sincerity, humbly begged forgiveness for grievous failings of the State, promised fair redress and promised never to repeat the mistakes of the past.

But, more often than not, it hasn’t turned out that way.

Five successive taoisigh now. Five State apologies.

And another record broken for Simon Harris when he rose to deliver his State apology after just two weeks in office.

It is not lost on anyone that the Stardust tragedy happened six years before he was born. At 37, maybe the Taoiseach’s relative youth casts him as an honest broker in this tortured episode in Irish history. Four decades of getting the runaround from political and legal bigwigs would make anyone wary.

Harris was barely a few days in office when the inquest into the deaths of the 48 young people who died in the Stardust nightclub fire in 1981 found they were unlawfully killed. Here, at last, was the beginning of the vindication their families fought for ever since their loved ones were wrongly blamed for starting it.

To his credit, he moved swiftly, meeting the families within 48 hours of the verdict. Three days later, they filled the Dáil’s public and distinguished visitors’ galleries to witness the apology they requested and so richly deserved.

Four hours were set aside for statements from Government and Opposition. There were refreshments before and after for the visitors.

The Taoiseach left his seat after his speech. As the talking continued, he was upstairs slowly making his way around the curved rows. He shook hands with almost everyone – the others he embraced.

For the Dáil, this was an unprecedented gesture.

He didn’t have to do it but it was good that he did.

His words, spoken on behalf of the State, hung fresh in the air as moved around.

“Today we say formally and without any equivocation, we are sorry.

“We failed you when you needed us the most. From the very beginning we should have stood with you but instead we forced you to stand against us.”

This was a Taoiseach accepting what they have always known but never thought they would hear: “You did nothing wrong. The institutions of the State let you down.”

He read the names of the dead into the Dáil record along with brief descriptions of their personalities, making sure they weren’t mere numbers any more. The only numbers were the heartbreaking ones he read out after each account:

“He was 17 ... He was 17 ... She was 19 .. she was 18 ... He was 23 ... she was 16 ...”

A young usher sat at the station above the chamber rails, blinking back the tears. Across the way, Minister of State Anne Rabbitte gave up the fight and wiped her eyes. Lynn Boylan, who did so much to help the Stardust bereaved, leant on the rail at the seating reserved for Senators and wept.

It took almost 15 minutes for the Taoiseach to read out the names. As he went through them, recognition rippled through the ranks of the relatives – a shudder here, a crumpled tissue there, a steadying hand on an arm, a head suddenly bowed.

There was no applause when he finished a considered and considerate address in which he did not shirk from acknowledging the persistent and appalling treatment of the families by the authorities.

That came earlier when Leas-Cheann Comhairle Catherine Connolly, who would later make a blistering attack on an establishment protecting its ragged reputation by closing ranks against people they considered their social inferiors, welcomed the group to the Dáil.

TDs rose to their feet and greeted them with thunderous applause.

A wonderful moment for them even if a few wry smiles were exchanged among the battle-hardened after all these years of fighting.

He was followed by a number of Government speakers. Two of them from the Stardust constituency on Dublin’s northside. Fine Gael’s Richard Bruton was honest and to the point: “We who represented them in the constituency failed them and we have to accept that fully,” he said.

Fianna Fáil’s Seán Haughey made an awkward contribution – both apologetic and jarringly defensive.

His father Charlie Haughey was the kingpin politician of the area and the country at the time. He was friendly with the owners of the Stardust. He did no favours for the grieving families.

When his son spoke, the atmosphere changed instantly in the gallery. The body language became closed. People whispered, frowning.

He said he did his best for them, always trying to help them when they asked. “But, if I’m honest though, this was not enough.” He spoke of “somewhat fraught” relations with the Stardust committee.

Perhaps forgetting that discretion is the better part of valour, he said they were different times. It was “a hierarchical society”.

Wasn’t it just. Isn’t it just? The expressions on the faces told it all.

An emotional Mary Lou McDonald made an impassioned contribution. Sinn Féin supported the families when the main parties didn’t want to know them.

Having never been in power, Sinn Féin cannot be tied to the callous actions of administrations past. She could afford to be political, and she was, berating successive governments for having one law for the rich and another for the poor.

She introduced the “Big Lie”. The lie that youngsters at the nightclub started the fire which “spread as fast as the fire itself”.

The Sinn Féin leader got a strong round of applause.

Her colleague Denise Mitchell remembers the Stardust tragedy well. The TD for Dublin Bay North lived in Darndale at the time and she remembered hearing about it on the radio. She told her father, who became anxious, fearing his nieces and nephews might have been there.

They had no phone and rushed over to the nearest house with one, only to find a queue of similarly anxious people outside waiting their turn to make a call.

There was real anger when Denise spoke. She was one of their own, and her views resonated with the relatives in the gallery.

And on it went, speaker after speaker.

TDs talking of their own youths when they went out to dances of an evening, full of hope and devilment and adventures to come. Mourning the lost lives of those young people who never did come home.

But what came though most strongly from Opposition speakers was their anger at wrongs wrought upon the many innocents – people without the right addresses or right connections – down through the decades and how the State and its institutions conspired to thwart their legitimate claims for justice.

Catherine Connolly’s controlled, articulate anger was compelling as she went down through inquiries and redress schemes from the Kerry babies to the mother and baby homes.

“In every single report I’ve read in my limited time here in the Dáil there is a self-serving narrative: the powerful protect the powerful.

“And what happened here was absolutely class distinction,” she said.

There was mention last year of clashes in the Dáil over the removal of disability payments from people and illegal overcharging of elderly people in nursing homes who were finding it almost impossible to get back the money owed to them by the State.

It was, the Opposition claimed, part of a “callous legal strategy” compelling people to go to law to vindicate their rights and only settling on the steps of the court. Most are too old or too poor to take that course.

“Perhaps tomorrow we’ll see yet another story of a group of people being failed by the State,” mused Labour’s Ivana Bacik at the time.

For now vindication and recognition is enough for the courageous Stardust community.

They deserved their red roses and group photographs. They deserved to celebrate their success.

But they know this is not the end.

Simon Harris, who was impressive on Tuesday, must continue now to impress.

He needs to deliver for his Stardust friends.

After yet another State apology, that old Peggy Lee song plays troublingly in the background.

“Is that all there is ...?”

Say it ain’t so.