'Stardust families will settle for nothing less than a full inquiry'

Finian McGrath and his officials have helped break a major impasse in exploring new evidence from the 1981 disaster, writes Hugh O'Connell

11th July, 2017
A candlelit vigil at the Stardust site in memory of the 48 victims who perished Pic: RollingNews.ie

Finian McGrath is the self-styled maverick whose long standing admiration for Cuba, Castro and socialism in general is way out of sync with most of his cabinet colleagues.

Yet he is arguably the most settled of all the independent ministers currently working in government, particularly when you compare him to his Independent Alliance colleagues Shane Ross and John Halligan.

Halligan has on various occasions threatened to walk from government, although not recently to be fair to him. Meanwhile, Ross privately annoys Fine Gael ministers on an almost permanent basis. He has also more recently been caught up in public controversies over laws to reform the selection of judges and underwrite the cost of the Ireland’s Rugby World Cup bid.

By contrast, Fine Gael ministers are full of admiration for McGrath, primarily because he works hard and wants to get things done. He's established a bit of reputation for banging the table and giving out to officials in meetings for not delivering. But his permanent good nature and cheeky laugh means he probably gets away with it in a way most others wouldn't.

And unlike others, McGrath seems to prefer working behind the scenes rather than fan the flames of controversy in public. Last week it went largely unnoticed that McGrath and his officials, including advisor and political ally Damien O’Farrell, helped to break a major impasse in the examination of new evidence into the causes of the 1981 Stardust disaster which killed 48 people.

Judge Pat McCartan had threatened to quit the process after victims’ families refused to handover a large cache of new evidence. The Stardust families were reportedly seeking up to €400,000 for extensive work that has been carried out over the past 15 years by researcher Geraldine Foy.

Last week McGrath delivered the awkward but effective warning to the families that without agreeing to handover the file, McCartan would quit.

There would then be little or no hope of a new statutory inquiry into the fire at the Artane nightclub, something the families and survivors have long demanded. Understandably, given their decades-long fight for justice, they are deeply suspicious and sceptical of the state’s institutions.

But after several hours of talks, it was agreed that the families would handover the new evidence to be assessed by McCartan. He will determine not only if there is grounds for a new state investigation, but also how much in legal fees and other associated costs are owed.

“This is a major step forward in the process. It’s up to the judge to make the decision now, independent of politicians and the families,” McGrath told me afterwards.

Foy’s trawl of unpublished transcripts from both the initial tribunal and more recent scrutiny of evidence eight years ago reportedly debunks the long standing official conclusion that the Stardust fire was a result of arson. Instead, the evidence suggests that the fire began as a result of an electrical fault on the first floor of the nightclub.

The families will settle for nothing less than a full inquiry to determine, once and for all, what caused the horrendous nightclub fire nearly four decades ago. For them, it would be another important step on the road to vindication and justice.

McCartan will decide what happens next sometime in the autumn.

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