Deaths of 48 people in 1981 fire at Dublin's Stardust nightclub were unlawful killing, jury rules

The deaths of 48 people in the worst fire in the history of Ireland have been ruled by a jury as unlawful killing.

A jury at Dublin District Coroner's Court delivered majority verdicts on the victims of the 1981 Stardust nightclub fire in the city on Thursday.

The venue in Artane, north Dublin, was packed with around 800 people when the fire broke out in the early hours of Valentine's Day.

More than 200 people were injured in the disaster.

Fresh inquests into the deaths, the longest held in Ireland, were ordered by the country's attorney general in 2019, but only began last year.

A jury, made up of seven women and five men, delivered the verdict on Thursday after 11 days of deliberation.

Some family members of the victims jumped to their feet and clapped at the verdict, while others were moved to tears as they remained in their seat.

Others embraced each other as soon as the foreman said "unlawful killing".

The jury also established that the fire started as a result of an electrical fault in an airing cupboard.

In the ballroom, foam in the seating, the height of the ceiling in an alcove, and carpet tiles on the wall all contributed to the spread of the fire, the jurors found.

Several factors, including lack of visibility because of black smoke, the toxicity of the smoke and/or gases, the heat of the fire, the speed of the fire's spread, lack of staff preparedness and the failure of the emergency lighting system were all factors that impeded the victims in escaping the building.

The jury was unable to determine when the blaze started but said it was first seen outside the building between 1.20am and 1.40am.

It said the fire was first seen inside the ballroom between 1.35am and 1.40am.

After the verdict, Maurice Frazer, whose sister Thelma died in the fire, spoke about "the unbearable pain of losing parents, siblings and cherished friends even decades later".

"For those decades, our hearts and minds have been shattered, and the mental toll has been overwhelming and exhausting, persisting day after weary day.

"In 2009, the finding of the Stardust Tribunal 1981 - probable arson - was finally removed. That's 28 years of our loved ones' names smeared with the label of arson - one of the most despicable crimes imaginable."

The family member demanded "a meaningful public apology from the Irish state".

"While today brings a glimmer of relief, we now know deep down that it can never erase the void left by our loved ones' absence.

"Yet amidst the sorrow, there's a flicker of hope. Today marks a turning point, a step towards closure. Healing towards a future where justice prevails."

Antoinette Keegan, whose two sisters Mary and Martina died in the blaze, said it was an "overwhelming day".

Ms Keegan, who survived the fire, said: "This day is for the 48."

Bridget McDermott, who lost three children in the fire - William, Marcella and George, was in court for the verdicts.

Her daughter Louise paid tribute to her mother afterwards.

"Our mother is here, and we don't know how she's still with us, but she is and she was here today to get the unlawful killing (verdicts) of her three children," she said.

"It was a very emotional day for all the families here, all of us. For 43 years we had to fight and we shouldn't have had to have done. None of us. We shouldn't be here now, this should have been sorted and done long ago."

Coroner Dr Myra Cullinane paid tribute to the "persistence and commitment" of the families who had campaigned for fresh inquests.

"To the families, I acknowledge the deaths of these 48 young people is a source of ongoing grief to those who loved them and it remains the defining loss of their lives," she said.

"The fact that these inquests have been held at all is in no small part due to the persistence and commitment of families over the years.

"And, finally, we remember those 48 young people who lost their lives on that fateful night. It is their lives that we've sought to vindicate by way of these inquests."

A tribunal of inquiry set up soon after the fire found arson was the "probable" cause, something the families rejected as it appeared to blame those attending the disco and absolved the club's owners.

This is despite evidence that exits in the ballroom were locked, chained or otherwise obstructed, which the jury confirmed this afternoon.

The original inquests in 1982 lasted five days and were confined to recording the medical cause of the deaths and did not examine the circumstances of the fire.

They were themselves awarded IR£581,000 compensation by a Dublin court in 1983.

But victims' relatives kept pushing for a new investigation and, eventually, new inquests were announced, only for legal arguments and wrangling over juror pay to delay proceedings by a further four years.

Ireland's prime minister, Simon Harris, described the Stardust tragedy as "one of the darkest moments in our history".

"A heartbreaking tragedy because of the lives that were lost, the families that were changed forever, and the long, drawn-out struggle for justice that followed," he said.

Mr Harris remembered those who lost their lives and paid tribute to their families for pursuing truth and justice "to ensure that such a disaster never happens again".

He said the Irish government will consider the verdict in full, and the recommendations of the jury.

"48 young people never came home that night, but as Taoiseach I want to say this to their families; You never gave up on justice for them, you never let Ireland forget about them. They were never alone, and our country owes you a great debt for that."

Irish president Michael D Higgins said: "Today's findings have at last brought a conclusion as to the circumstances of their death: to the cause of the fire, to the factors which contributed to its spread, to the factors which impeded those who died in their ability to escape and to access and exit through emergency exits, by its ultimate verdict of unlawful killing," he said.

"Findings which again have come about thanks to the tireless campaigning and work of those who cared most for the loss and appropriate memory of each of those who died.

"I am very conscious that today will be a day of the deepest emotions for the loved ones of those who died. A day of vindication and of honour, but also a day of the deepest sadness and regret. I think in particular of those whose passing means this conclusion comes too late for them.

"As president of Ireland, I congratulate each of the families for the outcome of their steadfastness in pursuit of justice in honouring the memory of those they cared most for on this most important of days."