Stardust victims relatives on the morning of the inquest's opening. RollingNews.ie photo.

ADAMS: Stardust Disaster Families Demand Truth

The inquest into the Stardust disaster opened in Dublin last week. The list of the dead from that terrible event in February 1981 is heartbreakingly long.

The families of the 48 young people who died have been reading poignant pen portraits of their loved ones into the record of the inquest. All of those who were killed were aged between 16 and 26. Over two hundred others were injured.

Forty two years after that appalling tragedy the Stardust families now have the opportunity, long denied them by successive governments, to get to the truth of the events of that night. 

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The inferno that consumed the St. Valentine’s night disco in the Stardust at Artane left scores of families devastated and the communities of Artane, Coolock and Donnycarney in North Dublin reeling from the deaths of so many young people.

At the White House in May, 1998 Richard McAuley, Gerry Adams and Mairead Keane.

At the White House in May, 1998 Richard McAuley, Gerry Adams and Mairead Keane.

Over 800 people had been crammed into the venue. The trauma of those communities was compounded by the subsequent decisions of state agencies to deny the families access to the truth of what happened that night.

Accusations emerged quickly that Dublin Corporation had failed to carry out any fire safety inspections in the Stardust, which had opened in 1978 and was one of the largest of such venues in the state.

On the night of the fire there were five emergency exit doors. These were padlocked and had chains attached to prevent their being opened. Metal grilles and steel plates covered the windows. People outside the building were unable to pull these off to help those trapped inside.

The owner, Eamon Butterly, said that it was normal for the emergency exits to be chained. However, he claimed that the chains were taken off on disco nights. But on the night of the disaster the chains were in place and those fleeing the fire and smoke could not escape.

A tribunal of inquiry was held chaired by Mr. Justice Ronan Keane. Despite the Tribunal determining that there were severe fire violations and that the owner acted with reckless disregard for the safety of his customers, Butterly received £580,000 punts in compensation. Why? Because although there was no evidence to support a conclusion of arson, the Tribunal ruled that arson was probably to blame.

The Director of Public Prosecutions also decided that there were insufficient grounds to take action against Butterly. No one was held accountable for what occurred. The only person ever taken to court was Christy Moore who in July 1985 was found in contempt of court for his song "They Never Came Home."

He was inspired to write the song after hearing one of the mothers in an interview use that phrase. His song contained the following lines:

"In a matter of seconds confusion did reign.

The room was in darkness, fire exits were chained…”

"Hundreds of children are injured and maimed,

and all just because the fire exits were chained."

In addition, Eamon Butterly claimed that the words “Just how the fire started, sure no-one can tell" was not accurate. The court found for Butterly and Christy’s album had to be withdrawn.

In 1985 a compensation tribunal was established. To access compensation the families had to relinquish their right to pursue any further legal action. In addition, there were two Oireachtas-appointed reports. None of these actions by the state satisfied the families who continued to demand truth. They organized protests, held vigils, and lobbied the political parties. Sinn Féin supported the families throughout this process. 

A review (The Coffey Inquiry, 2008) ordered by the government concluded that the claim of arson was not "justifiable on the evidence." Following the publication of the report the Dáil voted on 3 February 2009 to acknowledge that: “the cause of the fire is unknown, the original finding of arson is a mere hypothetical explanation and is not demonstrated by any evidence and that none of the persons present on the night of the fire can be held responsible for it.”

It is now accepted that there was no arson and that the fire originated with an electrical fault in a first floor storage room which did not have planning permission and held dangerous flammable material, including cooking oil. Despite the clear breaches of fire safety regulations, the owners never faced charges. The fact that Butterly was a friend of then Taoiseach Charles Haughey has raised consistent allegations of a cover-up.

Eventually, the campaign by the Stardust families resulted in 2019 in then attorney general Séamus Woulfe ordering a new inquest. This has now opened and is expected to last six months and to hear evidence from hundreds of witnesses. The Dublin coroner, Myra Cullinane, has said she will not be bound by previous findings of past inquiries and, significantly, the High Court ruled last year that this inquest can include "unlawful killing" as a potential verdict.

The women negotiators.

The women negotiators.


The considerable media coverage of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement frequently told the story of that negotiation through the words and voices of the leadership figures who participated. When the role of women in the talks process was mentioned it was almost exclusively in the context of the participation of the Women’s Coalition.

While the Women’s Coalition undoubtedly played its part, the absence of any focus on the part played by the many women from the other parties did a disservice to their involvement. During my contribution on the first day in the panel "Building Peace – the Parties," chaired by Ambassador Nancy Soderberg, I took the opportunity to read out a list of those women comrades who were consistently part of Sinn Féin’s negotiating team. 

They included Síle Darragh, Siobhán O’Hanlon, Sue Ramsay, Dawn Doyle, Geraldine Crawford, Bríd Curran, Lucilita Bhreatnach, Bairbre de Brún, Dodie McGuinness, Chrissie McAuley, Rita O’Hare and Michelle Gildernew. Mairead Keane, our first North America representative based in Washington from 1995, also played a significant role in D.C. and with our Irish American allies. 


This column supports the decision by First Minister Designate Michelle O'Neill and Northern Assembly Ceann Chomairle Alex Maskey to accept the invitation to attend the coronation of the English King Charles. They do so in their capacity as representatives of all the people of the North. 

The vast majority of people who have talked to me about this agree with this initiative. Others do not agree. I would be worried if it was not so. Republicans are against unelected hierarchies of all kinds, including monarchies. That would be the case even if, God forbid, there was a native Irish one. Even more so that we have someone else’s royals foisted on us. Or that some of us have suffered grievously, including our neighbors and friends in Ballymurphy and Derry at the hands of British paratroopers. 

So it is no surprise that some republicans will be discommoded by Michelle and Alex’s attendance. One young person told me it was a step too far. But not everyone in the North, or in the rest of Ireland, is a republican. And our society is deeply divided, not least because of English claims to jurisdiction here. 

Despite these divisions we have agreed that the people of our island will decide the future. My clear view, and Michelle and Alex’s, is that the union should be ended. Others have a different view. We have to persuade them of the merits of self determination.

Any sensible citizen watching the recent punishment budget announcement by the current British Secretary of State is bound to wonder why some local politicians embrace this arrangement. We can’t afford the union. Why shouldn’t we have our own tax gathering powers? Why can’t we set our own budget?

Surely it is obvious that we don’t need an English Tory, or anyone else from England, to rule us. The cost of the union is too much. On all counts. The sooner it ends the better for us all.

Notwithstanding the current stance of the DUP, we are well able to govern ourselves once the shackle of English rule ends. The Good Friday Agreement referendum on the future will decide that. Governing ourselves means everyone who lives here having respect and tolerance for each other. 

That’s what the First Minister and the Assembly Ceann Chomairle’s acceptance of the coronation invite is about. No matter about their own personal and political or ideological view they are about representing everyone as best they can. Those who expect a reciprocal gesture from the extremes of unionism are naive. That is not the rationale for this initiative. A First Minister for all is exactly that. Michelle O'Neill continues to hold and to act on her own republican views but as First Minister Designate she is demonstrating her commitment to be a minister for everyone.  

On this occasion she, and Alex, will represent those who have a different attitude from them to monarchies. Including people in England. Let’s lead by example. Good neighborliness based on equality of relationships is possible within and between the people of these islands. This will truly flourish when we get to exercise our right to self determine our future. Speed the day.