23 April 2024

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State apology delivered by Taoiseach Simon Harris in Dáil Éireann

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State apology delivered by Taoiseach Simon Harris in Dáil Éireann

State apology delivered by Taoiseach Simon Harris in Dáil Éireann

I want to begin today by welcoming to the House the Stardust families who are gathered here in the gallery today.

I know that there have been many, many times when you thought this day would never come. Over far too many, many years.

I know that you were forced to endure a living nightmare which began when your loved ones were so cruelly snatched from you in a devastating fire.

Their unfinished stories became your story. The defining story of your lives and the lives of your parents and other family members who left this life before ever seeing justice.

I am deeply sorry that you were made to fight for so long that they went to their graves never knowing the truth.

Today we say formally and without any equivocation, we are sorry.  We failed you when you needed us the most.  From the very beginning, we should have stood with you, but instead we forced you to stand against us.

48 young people lost their lives in the Stardust disaster, many more were injured, and even more still had their lives broken and shattered forever.

When I met with you in Government Buildings last Saturday, you reminded me of another time when four of your family members waited for days in the cold security hut, protesting your exclusion and hoping for access.

I hope the days since last Thursday have marked a turning point and here today, in Dáil Éireann, we begin to put things right.

To bring you in from the cold and end the neglect of 43 years waiting and fighting for the only thing you ever wanted – the truth. Nothing else. No other agenda. Just the truth.

I hope this is a moment when the State, which rubbed salt in your terrible wounds, starts to help you heal.

You asked me to try to really understand your experience, to really feel your pain and to immerse myself in your world as set out in your eloquent pen portraits to the inquest.

There I found not only terrible anguish and unimaginable heartbreak but also love and joy and laughter. Personalities, promise and potential. Slagging. Messing. Pride. Dignity. Talent.

Innocence.

And the deep abyss of loss. And loneliness.

On 13 February 1981, 48 daughters and sons, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, cousins and in-laws, uncles and aunts, neighbours and friends and co-workers, went out to the Stardust on the night of the dancing competition and never came home.

For their families, in the nightmare that was to follow, their loved ones not only lost their lives, they lost their identities. They were much, much more than numbers.

They were bright, beautiful people. They had plans and dreams, their whole lives ahead of them.

Today, as their families did in their pen portraits to the Stardust inquest, we remember:

Michael Barrett, who was working that night as an assistant DJ, he was wise beyond his years and had an infectious laugh. He was 17 years old.

Richard Bennett, who loved horses and took on the role of breadwinner for his family, described as ‘an angel in disguise’. He was 17.

Carol Bissett, a singer in the choir and a Girl Guide, quiet in her ways, much loved by all. She was 18.

Jimmy Buckley, the life of every party, who loved hurling and had won a competition for his Elvis impression. Father figure, brother, hero. He was 23.

Paula Byrne, always the peacemaker, she loved to draw, and was the epitome of kindness.  She was 19.

Caroline Carey, a talented Irish dancer who took up disco dancing, a Dublin City Council clerical officer, who had recently found out she was going to be a mother. Her family asked me to say this baby was the 49th victim of the Stardust tragedy.  Caroline was 17.

John Colgan, “Johnny”, always upbeat, he lit up every room and performed the ‘Hucklebuck’ as his party piece. He was going to be an uncle. He was 21.

Jacqueline Croker, a heart of gold, who brought music into her family’s lives on her red record player and used her wages to dress and treat her brothers and sisters.  She was 18.

Liam Dunne, training to be a butcher, which he loved, with a passion for music, he was a loving boy with many friends.  He was 18.

Michael Farrell, his family’s bundle of joy, he worked at Cadbury, a dapper young man who always tried to look his best. He was a deep thinker and a diarist. He was 26.

Michael Ffrench, “Horsey”, an auto electrician and the rock of his family, a role model who worked hard to share his wages and thought of everyone before himself.  He was 18.

David Flood, a rocker at heart, who loved the guitar and was known for his ‘Jagger swagger’, he never missed a day of work and had all of life’s possibilities before him.  He was 18.

Thelma Frazer, gentle and kind, loved Friday nights and disco moves, remembered by her brothers and sisters for her treats and hugs and kisses.  She was 20.

Josephine Glen, quiet and gentle, always smiling and happy, a second mam to her brothers and sisters, who left school to help support her family.  She was 16.

Michael Griffiths, happy, outgoing, with a great work ethic and a generous nature, he loved family occasions and Christmas, and could always be heard – laughing, singing, playing music.  He was 18.

Robert Hillick, “Bobby”, outgoing and hardworking, he loved football and boxing, and was very close to his late brother, Bill.  He was 20.

Brian Hobbs, his sister was known as his ‘Mammy Pat’, he was academically inclined and excelled at catering college, winning a gold medal for Ireland in competition, he was ambitious, he was going places. He was 21.

Eugene – ‘Hughie’ – Hogan, a skilled carpenter, a sharp dresser with a beautiful voice which could hit the high notes, a loving, caring father. He was 24.

Murty (Murtagh) Kavanagh, caring, kind and good natured, he was a heating insulator who looked after his father, and who loved the Dubs and Manchester United.  He was 27.

Martina Keegan, not just a daughter and sister but a best friend and confidante, she dreamed of being a model and was studious and hardworking.  She was 16.

Mary Keegan, beautiful inside and out, shy at heart but very fun loving and sociable, a teacher to her younger siblings she excelled at school and work. She was 19.

Robert Kelly, nicknamed “Spikey” for his hairstyle, he worked on the B&I boats and loved it, and he was a lover of music and embroidery. He was 17.

Marie Kennedy, warm and caring, lively and fiercely protective, dancing as soon as she could walk, her personality and style were as bright as her smile.  She was 17.

Mary Kenny, popular, kind and funny, passionate about fashion and dancing, and a fan of Leeds United.  She had just turned 19.

Margaret Kiernan, a friend to all, who loved sport and socialising, who loved to sing Roxanne, and who dreamt of a happy future in a house next door to her best friend, Deirdre.  She was 18.

Sandra Lawless, happy, kind, funny, selfless, a Girl Guide leader and swimmer who won awards for life-saving, and loved hiking and camping in the Dublin mountains.  She was 18.

Francis Lawlor, an army man with a love of style, he had great leadership skills and never liked to leave his beautiful baby, Lisa. He was 25.

Maureen Lawlor, a loving and devoted mother to Lisa, full of dreams for the future, she shared an interest in fashion with her husband Francis and was always immaculately dressed.  She was 26.

Paula Lewis, was her mother’s right-hand woman and her father’s pride and joy, she was a second mother to her siblings and her little sister’s room-mate. She was 19.

Eamonn Loughman, a protector of his brothers and sisters who remember crossbars on his racer, a car enthusiast and music lover, with a deep laugh.  He was 18.

Donna Mahon, a lovely person, who loved her job working in a newsagent, meeting people and being part of the community, and had plans to go to Santa Ponsa for her 18th birthday. She was 17.

Helena Mangan, kind, caring, loving, brave and strong, her daughter Samantha was the centre of her life. She loved to dance. She was 22.

George McDermott, a gentle music lover with a cheeky grin, he loved a bop and playing cards with his pals. He was 18.

Marcella McDermott, happy, singing and dancing, with the most gentle and kind nature, especially with children. She was 16.

William McDermott, “Willie”,  a gentle giant, with a beautiful smile, soft-voiced, witty, caring and kind, he loved the weekend, the Dubliners and being on Hill 16. He was 22.

Julie McDonnell, caring, helpful and thoughtful, a hard worker and a provider, she loved football, coached a local team and was mad for Elvis.  She was 20.

Teresa McDonnell, the focal point of her family, she was brave, stood up for what she believed and loved all animals.  She was 16.

Gerard McGrath, independent and full of energy, talented with his hands and a dapper music-lover, he had a passion for the natural world and a love of birds. He was 21.

Caroline McHugh, an avid reader, Irish dancer and swimmer, and a member of the local CB radio club, who did well in school and work.   She was 17.

James Millar, a sailor who had travelled the world, so happy to be engaged to be married and ready to settle down and raise a family.  He was 20.

Susan Morgan, a tom boy, who loved football and walks, and Dublin, she was bubbly, funny, full of life.  She was 19.

David Morton, football mad and nicknamed “Chesty” for preferring to receive the ball there than have it mess up his hair, he was mischievous, charismatic and independent, with big dreams for the future.  He was 19.

Kathleen Muldoon, good natured and thoughtful, she wanted to be a nurse, and cared for all those around her.  She was 19.

George O’Connor, a gentle homebody with a creative spirit who loved science fiction, he was attending his first dance.   He was 17.

Brendan O’Meara, a talented Irish dancer and sports man, he would help anyone out in any way he could and never had a hair out of place.  He was 23.

John Stout, sensitive and gentle, an Elvis fan who liked snooker, he planned to become a painter & decorator to contribute to the family household he loved.  He was 18.

Margaret Thornton, a lover of fashion and music, skilled in dress-making and tailoring, she loved the pictures, concerts and especially discos. She was 19.

Paul Wade, a people person, good at chatting, who made friends easily, someone you simply couldn’t stay mad at. He was 17.

Today we think as well of the hundreds of people who were injured and scarred forever, physically and mentally. Scarred by fire; scarred by survival.

We think of the people working in the Stardust, the waiters and waitresses, the doormen and DJs.

We think of the frontline workers who fought to save lives on the night. The fire crews, the ambulance and hospital staff, the Gardaí, the army, the taxi drivers.

I want to acknowledge those who came forward many years later and told their stories at the inquest.

I want to acknowledge the Dublin communities who were good neighbours to the Stardust families and the communities across Ireland who have supported them for 43 years.

Forty-three years since the momentous, devastating loss that was experienced in those early hours of Valentine’s Day 1981.

Families who had last seen their young loved ones getting dressed up in their best, freshly pressed outfits, getting ready to meet friends, going out for a dance, suddenly hearing of a fire in the Stardust.

Or the sound of the sirens, or the knock on the door.

And then the escalating panic as the realisation dawned that a disaster was unfolding.

To the desperation of searching, hoping, praying your family member or friend, had left, escaped, somehow wasn’t there when the fire started and spread.

To the frantic rounds of the Stardust car park, the hospitals and the morgue.

To the dismay of confirming the identity of lost loved ones by recognising melted jewellery, or an engagement ring, wedding ring, clothing, a digital watch.

With a loved one’s name replaced by a number or the label ‘unidentified’.  Or waiting, many years, for confirmation of identity long after the agonising pain of loss

And the dreadful aftermath.

The body bags and numbers.

The rushed funerals.

The closed coffins.

The shattering of families.

Every subsequent event marred and scarred, tainted and tarnished.

The surviving children whose rearing years were done through a sea of tears.

Mothers afraid to hug, afraid to love, in fear of losing another child.

Broken hearts and broken lives. Broken marriages.

Being accused of telling lies. The smear of arson attached to their loved ones. Having their grief and sadness misconstrued as madness.

A sense of threat and suppression when you simply started looking for answers.

Stigma heaped upon sorrow bred shame and silence.

The intergenerational and communal ripple effect of so much agony and the lack of closure.

The families gathered here today and their loved ones who perished, the family members who are no longer with us, and all those who suffered horrific injuries, were the victims of a mass tragedy.

In such shattering circumstances, the expectation must surely be that the State comes to the aid of its citizens and supports them in the terrible aftermath.

Instead, it is to our great and eternal shame that far from the warm embrace of a caring State, the Stardust families experienced a cold shoulder, and a deaf ear, and two generations of struggle for truth and justice.

Instead, it is to our great shame that State processes heaped misery upon tragedy for the Stardust families.

I am so deeply sorry your first bid for justice ended with suspicion being cast on those who had died or survived on that catastrophic night.

With your pain and grief compounded by stigma and rejection, the families were forced to fight for decades to obtain the vindication you won last Thursday when the inquest returned a verdict of unlawful killing in the case of your 48 family members.

For all of this, as Taoiseach, on behalf of the State, I apologise unreservedly to all the families of the Stardust victims and all the survivors for the hurt that was done to them and for the profoundly painful years of struggle for the truth.

I apologise to the families that those present on the night of the fire were wrongly criminalised through the allegation of arson which was an attack on their reputations.

I say today every person there was innocent.

I say today the truth is now known.

Not only were they innocent – they were unlawfully killed.

The Government accepts the findings of the Coroner’s Court and the recommendations of the jury.

This was formally noted at the Cabinet meeting this morning and the Minister for Justice and other relevant Ministers have been asked to report back on the implementation of the recommendations.

I have asked my own Department to prepare proposals to appropriately commemorate the disaster, as requested by the families.  We look forward to engaging with you on this.

Last Saturday, when I met with you here in Government Buildings, I listened to the pain, the grief and the righteous anger.

It is beyond comprehension how, in the midst of horrific suffering, you found the endurance and fortitude to form the Stardust Victims Committee and start your long fight.

But that moment has led to this one. This moment where we say your loved ones are no longer lost in the smoke and the dark and the fire, but are brought back into the light.

Where we fulfil the promise of the proclamation of our Republic and say without question they are our cherished children.

I want to pay tribute to three of the women who sat in that cold hut outside Government Buildings 15 years ago, who are here with us today – Gertrude Barrett, Antoinette Keegan and Bridget McDermott.

Their indomitable spirit in refusing to be kept out in the cold, led us to this moment today.

However, very sadly, the fourth woman who was there, Christine Keegan, and her late husband, John, didn’t live to see this day.

I turn to the words of Christine and the question she asked which was never answered in her lifetime. Christine said in a statement she had prepared for the inquest but did not get to deliver:

“The Stardust fire took all our happy family days away from us, it took away all our belief in faith and it took away our trust with successive governments over the years. We felt abandoned and all alone and left like lambs to a slaughter, everything brushed under the carpet, to keep the truth hidden.

“I would like to ask a question to the Government, the establishment, and its agencies. What did we families of the deceased victims of the Stardust fire ever do on the government, to deserve this ill treatment and constant systematic abuse we have sustained for the past 38 years?”

Today I want to answer that question.

You did nothing wrong.

The institutions of the State let you down.

These brave families should never have had to walk alone.   We should have been by your side, walking with you. We were not. And for that we are truly sorry.

We should have offered counselling, we should have provided answers, and we should have ensured the truth came out.

As Christy Moore recognised in his powerful song about the tragedy, ‘the victims waited in vain’, except it wasn’t for four years, it was for 43.

Today we honour ‘The 48 children who never came home’.  Today we apologise to the families, to the survivors, to those who were denied the truth for too long.

I want to thank the inquest jury for delivering a just verdict last Thursday.  I want to thank the senior coroner, Dr Myra Cullinane, for her sensitive and meticulous conduct of the Inquest.

The terrible reality is that we will never know for certain how many lives were ended by this tragedy.   Beyond the 48 whose names we know, there were countless others whose lives were turned to ash on that terrible night.  Their hopes and dreams were destroyed twice over.

First by the fire, and then by the successive failures of the State to do what was right.

And for that I am truly sorry.

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