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Stardust verdict – the view from inside the courtroom

At 2.53pm last Thursday, there was an eruption of joy and relief that few who experienced it will likely never forget.

Hundreds had gathered into the Pillar Room, where the Dublin City Coroner’s Court had been sitting for the Stardust inquests for the past year.

The place was packed.

From her bench, the coroner, Dr Myra Cullinane, looked to her left, continued addressing the 12 jurors.

“Members of the jury, your foreman has indicated that you’ve reached a verdict at these inquests and that you’ll be returning the same verdict for each of the 48 deceased, is that correct?”, she asked.

“Correct,” replied the foreman.

“So therefore, foreman of the jury I will ask you now to announce the verdict of the jury which refers to verdicts in each of the 48 persons who lost their lives,” Dr Cullinane said.

Families of those who lost loved ones in the 1981 Stardust tragedy in the Garden of Remembrance

This was day 134 of these inquests, but it was a day like no other. It was the day of the verdicts.

From early morning, there was a large media presence outside the black gates of the building.

The court was open to family members from 11am, reporters were to be allowed in at 1.45pm.

Relatives and supporters began arriving at mid-morning, passing the TV cameras, and through the gates leading to the courtroom.

Filing in were many of the families who have been present throughout these proceedings – the regulars, as well as those who have been watching the hearings online.

Others came too, including some who had given evidence to these inquests – those who were there on the night of the disaster.

Stardust survivor Antoinette Keegan, who lost her two sisters Mary and Martina in the blaze

For the relatives, there were hugs and kisses. Families who have been campaigning together for decades exchanging knowing glances, wishing each other the best. It was clear, these were anxious moments.

As the time crept past 1.30pm, the media were let inside.

The courtroom was jampacked, the public gallery full, more space was needed.

The staff at the inquests made do, getting extra chairs, putting them anywhere they could find room.

The legal teams stood up, vacated their seats to let family members sit down. The lawyers then huddled in corners. Those who could, stood at the back wall.

“It was clear these final minutes were agonising”

There was a scramble for reporters too as negotiations were briefly had as to who would be allowed in.

Those who were turned away were told that proceedings could also be watched online.

Sitting in the front row, were the elders of this Stardust community – the parents who lost children in the disaster – Bridget McDermott, Gertrude Barrett, Paul Lawless and others.

These families have been well used to waiting, they have been doing it for the last four decades, but it was clear these final minutes were agonising.

The court was open to family members from 11am on Thursday

Family members held on to each other’s hands, tissues at the ready.

And then, just after two o’clock, the coroner entered the courtroom, the 12 jurors also filed in and took their seats.

This was it.

The coroner explained that the findings into the cause and place of death for each individual victim would be first read out.

It started with Michael Barrett and ended with Paul Wade.

The families could be seen holding onto each other a little tighter as the name and details of their loved one was read aloud.

The jury was then taken through the questionnaire it had filled out dealing with the circumstances of the fire.

The Stardust memorial in Artane

The first two questions were always going to be key.

“The first question was ‘Are you able to establish where the fire started?’ and to that you have answered ‘yes’,” said the coroner.

“Correct,” replied the foreman.

“‘And if so, where did the fire start?’, and the answer from the jury is, ‘the hot press in the dispense bar’. Is that correct?,” the coroner asked.

“Correct,” replied the foreman.

There were muted cheers from the families and their legal teams.

“The second question was ‘Are you able to establish the cause of the fire?’. And the answer of the jury was ‘yes’. Is that correct?,” the coroner asked.

“Correct,” replied the foreman.

‘’And ‘If so, what was the cause of the fire’ to which the jury answered, ‘the cause was an electrical fault in the hot press’,’’ the coroner said.

“Correct,” said the foreman.

“Decades-long stigma…completely evaporated”

Everyone in the room knew the significance of that finding.

The decades-long stigma they had been living with – the fire was ‘probably started deliberately’ – had been completely evaporated.

The weight of that original 1982 finding lifted off their shoulders once and for all.

And then it was time for the ultimate verdict

At 2.53pm, the coroner said to the foreman: “I will ask you now to announce the verdict of the jury which refers to verdicts in each of the 48 persons who lost their lives.”

Without missing a beat, there was no pause for dramatic effect, he leaned, slightly, into the microphone.

“Unlawful killing,” he said.

Cue an eruption of emotion, as the families rose to their feet and clapped and cheered and cried.

The utter relief was palpable, the tears were flowing.

The aftermath of the Stardust fire in 1981

One of Bridget McDermott’s children embraced the 87-year-old.

Legal teams who had been representing the families of the victims slapped each other on the backs and hugged. Job done.

It took a few moments for the outpouring to die down, as the coroner brought an end to these year long proceedings.

She thanked the jury, the court staff, the legal teams. She paid tribute too, to the families for their role and determination in getting the inquests held.

“I acknowledge the deaths of these 48 young people is the source of ongoing grief to those who loved them and it remains the defining loss of their lives,” Dr Cullinane said.

“However, I hope that family members will have taken some solace from the fact these fresh inquests were held and the facts were surrounding the deaths were examined in detail.

“And finally we remember those 48 young people who lost their lives on that fateful night.

“It is their lives we sought to vindicate by ways of these inquests. Thank you.”

With that families began to pour out of the courtroom and into the Dublin air – the words, two in particular, they just heard ringing in the ears – unlawful killing.

Another word too began to ring out – justice.


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