State and institutions actively participated in narrative to ‘defame’ Stardust families, Dáil hears

Independent TD and barrister Catherine Connolly excoriates ‘self-serving’ reports where ‘the powerful protect the powerful’

Independent TD Catherine Connolly has excoriated the State and its institutions, including the judiciary, which “actively participated in a narrative that sought to defame” the Stardust fire families.

The Galway West TD sharply criticised a number of legal reports that followed in the years after the 1981 blaze, condemned their contradictions and said “none of this happened by accident”.

She stressed that the “unlawful deaths” verdict delivered by the inquests which concluded last week “says that there has to be some accountability here in relation to who is responsible for the unlawful deaths”.

And she warned that “there has to be something from the Government that recognises that in every single report that I have seen in my limited time in the Dáil there is a self-serving narrative”.


Comparing the experience of the Stardust families to the Kerry babies tribunal, she said the same narrative was at play. That tribunal was set up to investigate gardaí “but we got a narrative about Joanna Hayes and her family”.

The Hayes family got an apology and the survivors of the Stardust have got an apology “but the establishment has learned absolutely nothing. The powerful protect the powerful and what happened here was absolutely class distinction. If the Government does not face that and begin to learn from it then we have learned nothing.”

Referring to Taoiseach Simon Harris’s address and apology, she said he talked about “how the institutions of the State let the people down. They did a lot more than that – they actively contrived to prevent the truth coming out.”

She told TDs and the Stardust families that “the powerful protect the powerful and what happened here was absolutely class distinction. If the Government does not face that and begin to learn from it then we have learned nothing.”

In her speech to the Dáil at the conclusion of statements on the blaze which killed 48 people she said “it must be very uncomfortable for the families to sit through all of this, but it should be a lot more uncomfortable for us. Right up to now, this apology has been absolutely extracted from Governments on the pain, death and suffering, the addictions and suicides that followed from the absolutely appalling misuse of power.”

She said that quite a lot of the Keane report of Mr Justice Ronan Keane was “damning of the owners and various institutions, including the local authority”. But she said the former chief justice “came to a conclusion that was utterly not based on what he had said”.

She said that “for anybody, with the evidence that was before him, to come out and say that it was probable arson, presents serious problems” and it was the Taoiseach’s job and that of TDs to say “How in God’s name did that happen?”

Ms Connolly said the judge was critical of the nightclub’s executive directors and the safety measures, and said manager Eamon Butterly “bears the responsibility for the practice of keeping the emergency exits secured with chains and padlocks, a recklessly dangerous practice which regularly endangers the lives of over 1,000 people.”

There were “strong conclusions” but “then he goes on to say that it was probable arson. How could that happen?”

She described the subsequent “very faulty inquests” that just gave the medical cause of death. Four years after the fire Mr Butterly and his family got more than half a million pounds in compensation. “We have Mr Justice Sean O’Hanrahan, concluding that the Stardust fire was started maliciously. Here is another judge backing up the narrative.”

The 1985 compensation tribunal was another insult to families, she said, run by Mr Justice Donal Barrington, “a much respected judge”.

In that tribunal “we were told that we cannot compensate for mental upset. Can you imagine that? Imagine going through all of this, to be told that by a judge.”

She said that one Stardust father John Keegan appealed that to the Supreme Court but “the narrative prevailed”. Mr Keegan died on the day the Supreme Court refused his appeal. This happened “over and over again” and “it is important to remember that it did not happen by accident”.

Singer Christy Moore was held in contempt for his song They Never Came Home, by Mr Justice Frank Murphy who ruled that the lyrics “contained statements or comments calculated to prejudice a fair trial”.

But she added: “The comments by the establishment in relation to the people who were ‘telling lies’, according to the establishment, were not prejudicing anything or looking down on anything, apparently. Here was the powerful protecting the powerful.” A Prime Time documentary in 2006 made the case for a new public inquiry but that did not happen, Ms Connolly said.

Then “we came to the Coffey report”, that had to be revised.

“We must remember that this report came only after the Government of the time set up a non-statutory inquiry and John Gallagher SC had to resign because he had already represented An Garda Síochána.” The Coffey report gave the Government an option.

“He said that if it did not take out the words ‘probable arson’ then there should be a full public inquiry.”

Instead of saying there was something seriously wrong and a public inquiry was needed, “it took out the words and left everything else intact”.

The public record was finally corrected and the probable arson cause was expunged. But the McCartan report in 2017 on a dossier with new evidence for an inquiry “adds insult to injury”. Former judge Pat McCartan described the dossier as “rambling, argumentative, disorganised and at times incoherent” and the new evidence was “difficult to understand”.

In 2019 solicitors at Phoenix Law went through the European Convention on Human Rights and then attorney general Séamus Woulfe said there must be a new inquest. But still, it took five years to finally get the “unlawful death” verdicts, she said.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times