Stardust Inquest: Unlawful Killing Verdict a Massive Victory for Families and Survivors

Pic Maurice Frazer

Yesterday the Stardust Inquest delivered a verdict of unlawful killing for each of the 48 people who died in the tragedy on Valentine’s night in 1981.

Like the Hillsborough disaster in Britain, the Stardust fire, and the long campaign for answers by the families of those who died, symbolised the utterly rotten nature of the capitalist state. The Irish class system has shaped every aspect of the Stardust tragedy. The observation that had 48 young people died in a fire at a rugby or golf club in a more affluent part of Dublin city, it wouldn’t have taken 43 years to reach this verdict, is undoubtedly true. Every working-class person knows this intuitively.

The verdict has brought some semblance of justice to the victims’ families and the local community. Their campaign epitomises the very best of the working class. Decades long solidarity, organisation, an unwavering commitment to finding the truth, grit, determination, and an unbeatable fighting spirit. That this verdict was reached at all is due solely to the ‘Justice for the Stardust 48’ campaign.

The ‘Keane Inquiry’ immediately after the fire concluded that the cause was ‘arson’. A disgusting slur on the local community. This conclusion caused deep and lasting hurt to the families looking for justice. It was the classic establishment stitch up which cynically laid the blame for the tragedy on some unidentified person. At the time, the political establishment was happy with this finding, the media were happy with it and polite society wanted to ‘move on’ from the Stardust. The most important people in this process, the survivors and the families of the victims saw through this charade and mounted a fightback that resulted in yesterday’s verdict.

The Stardust was just the latest in a series of fire disasters that led to mass death of working-class people since the foundation of the Irish state in 1922. The Drumcollogher cinema disaster in Co. Limerick in 1926 led to the deaths of 48 people. The Cavan orphanage fire of 1943 saw 35 children and 1 adult burned to death. There was no official inquiry into the Drumcollogher fire, while the Cavan inquiry was regarded at the time as a whitewash. Both events were consistent with the pattern of brutal indifference by the state to mass loss of life where the victims were working class.

Yesterday’s verdict also exposes how despite massive change in Ireland since 1981 many things remain fundamentally the same. The Stardust venue was owned by a wealthy member of the business class. Safety standards were not observed. The inquest found decisively that exits were blocked, contributing to the tragedy. The Stardust owner fought a protracted, but unsuccessful, legal battle to ensure that the verdict of ‘unlawful killing’ was not available to the inquest jury. This shows, yet again, how the rich can use the legal system to defer justice and prolong the suffering of those campaigning for answers to tragedies like the Stardust.

In the Ireland of 2024, we still live under the system where the state enables wealthy property owners to do what they want to protect their profits. Landlords freely evict working class people without bothering to go through any legal procedure. The Gardaí assist in this process, often happily working alongside masked goon squads at these evictions. Over the past 20 years we have seen multiple apartment complexes – like the notorious Priory Hall not far from the Stardust site – condemned as death traps due to property developers’ failure to meet fire safety standards. While the mass public housing that was a feature of the local communities around the Stardust, has disappeared completely, to be replaced by an unprecedented housing crisis.

Yesterday’s inquest verdict is welcome. The families have asked for an apology and the government will no doubt issue one. It can hardly refuse. There may well be further developments. A verdict of unlawful killing implies as much. But for now, there is some element of closure to the Stardust tragedy of Valentine’s night in 1981.

‘They Never Came Home’ – Justice for the Stardust 48!