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The Stardust Disaster and Article 2 ECHR

stardustToday’s Irish Times reports that the Stardust Victims Committee has lodged a complaint with the Irish Human Rights Commission over the state’s conduct of investigations into the disaster in which 48 people were killed on St Valentine’s Day 1981. The photograph on the right, taken from the Irish Independent, shows the extent of the devastation resulting from the fire. The Committee complains of the period of time taken to correct the record and show that the claim that arson was the probable cause of the fire was a mere hypothetical (28 years) and that the establishment of an inquiry that reached this conclusion in 1981 and was chaired by Justice Ronan Keane had precluded the initiation of prosecutions. Most particularly the Committee is questioning whether the state is in breach of its obligation, under Article 2 of the ECHR, to effectively investigate losses of life.

The Stardust nightclub in Artane was a popular nightclub to which, on Valentine’s Day 1981, hundreds of people had gone for the night. It was the standard practice there, and indeed in other locations at the time, for the fire exists to be kept locked and when the fire broke out people were trapped inside the nightclub. The victims and their families have long maintained that the fact that the exits were locked contributed hugely to the high death toll on the night and indeed contend that the club’s proprieter ought to have been prosecuted for manslaughter. In fact, nobody has ever been charged in relation to the fire that took place in the Stardust in 1981.

The aftermath of the fire is well described in the following extract from the Introduction to the Report of the Independent Examination by Mr. Paul Coffey SC of the case submitted by the Stardust Victims Committee for a Reopened Inquiry into the Stardust Fire Disaster, which can be downloaded here (footnotes removed)

On the 20th of February, 1981 the Oireachtas (by resolutions of both Houses) established a Tribunal of Inquiry under the chairmanship of Mr Justice Ronan Keane (“the Tribunal”) to inquire into all aspects of the disaster including the cause of the fire.  1,600 statements were taken by An Garda Siochana from persons present in the building on the night of the fire, members of the emergency services and residents in the neighbourhood.  The Tribunal was assisted by three assessors, Professor Rasbash of the Department of Fire Safety Engineering in the University of Edinburgh, Gunnar Haurum Chief Inspector of Fire Services in Denmark and Pierce Piggot, Head of Construction Division of An Foras Forbartha.  It sat for 122 days and heard evidence from three hundred and sixty three witnesses.

1.4       In its Report dated the 30th June 1982 which made findings and recommendations in relation to a very broad range of issues, the Tribunal found, inter alia, that the fire started in the West Alcove of the Ballroom and that the fire was probably started deliberately.  The finding that the fire was probably started deliberately has provoked anger and indignation among the survivors and the bereaved who feel aggrieved at the insinuation, whether real or perceived, that the fire was deliberately set by a member of their own community  and possibly even by a patron who died or was injured.

1.5       The victims have since formed a committee to campaign for a further inquiry (“the Committee”).  Initially the campaign was sustained by the efforts of Ms Geraldine Foy who carried out exhaustive research into all the facts and circumstances of the disaster.  In February 2004 she submitted a report to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform the purpose of which was to suggest that the Tribunal had misdirected itself in relation to certain issues of fact.  The Department referred the report for the expert analysis of Mr Michael Norton of the Forensic Science Laboratory who having sought to address the issues raised dismissed the report generally because it did not contain “new evidence”.

The Irish Human Rights Commission is empowered to conduct investigations into alleged breaches of human rights under Irish and international humna rights law and we await with some interest the determination as to whether an investigation will be undertaken in this case and, if so, what its conclusion will be. Article 2 jurisprudence is quite clear on the obligation to carry out an investigation into unlawful or suspicious deaths and that this investigation ought to be prompt, independent and effective. It is not the case, according to the Court, that every new allegation or piece of information would trigger this positive obligation but “where there is a plausible, or credible, allegation, piece of evidence or item of information relevant to the identification, and eventual prosecution or punishment of the perpetrator of an unlawful killing, the authorities are under an obligation to take further investigative measures” (para. 71, Brecknell v United Kingdom)

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