Thursday, 1 February 2007
It is disappointing but, unfortunately, not surprising that just a couple of days before the 26th anniversary of the horrific Stardust inferno I am raising the issue once again in this House. At this exact time last year, I expressed my hope that all the pious words we were hearing from the Government about commemorating the victims and survivors of this unprecedented disaster would be turned into concrete action to achieve justice and closure for relatives of the families of the 48 young people who tragically lost their lives in February 1981 and the people of Coolock, Raheny, Donaghmede and Artane in the Dublin North East constituency. Instead, however, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have engaged in a despicable game of stonewalling in their responses throughout the past year to the Stardust Relatives and Victims Committee. At the start of business this morning, I sought to adjourn the Dáil to urgently discuss the ongoing impasse between the Government and the Stardust committee but my request was ruled out of order.
Last November, a detailed memorandum was submitted to the Taoiseach and Tánaiste thoroughly outlining the reasons for the request by the Stardust committee for a new commission of inquiry into the fire disaster of St. Valentine's Day, 1981. On 14 December, I was told in the Dáil by the Tánaiste that a "response to the Stardust Relatives and Victims Committee is imminent". On the following day, the Stardust committee's solicitor, Mr. Greg O'Neill, was also informed that a response to the memorandum was about to be sent from the Taoiseach and Tánaiste. The Stardust committee and its legal representatives were informed about the moves to positively identify the five remaining unidentified victims of the Stardust tragedy, for which the committee and the families concerned are deeply grateful. However, on the core substantive issue of reopening the flawed conclusions of the Stardust tribunal report, there has been a disgraceful lack of progress.
The last written communication from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to Mr. O'Neill and the committee, on 15 December, referred to the need for further consultation and seemed to conclude that the new material submitted in the memorandum had not been persuasive enough to justify another inquiry. The Taoiseach and Tánaiste referred to the possibility of an external and independent examination of the memorandum and the case of the Stardust Victims and Relatives Committee by an eminent legal person. This occurred almost seven weeks ago and the 26th anniversary of the Stardust tragedy is now less than two weeks away.
I have been informed by the Stardust Victims Committee of its deep frustration at the continual prevarication by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste and of its intention to resume protests outside Government Buildings next Wednesday. It is appalling that a dedicated group of people who have suffered so much should be treated in this obstructive manner by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste. Why are they continuing to treat the Stardust families in this appallingly disrespectful manner? Why will they not carry through on their commitments? Why do they keep making and then breaking deadlines for decisions? The committee is rightly fearful that the Government is putting this issue off until after the general election and that if the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition is returned to office, no more will be heard of justice for the Stardust committee and the people it represents.
I call for the immediate appointment of an eminent legal person acceptable to the Stardust committee to re-examine the memorandum and new evidence submitted. Such an investigation should take place over a strict timeframe comprising a limited number of weeks. A decision should be made to convene a new commission of inquiry that would reopen the unjust and unsafe conclusions of the original 1982 Stardust tribunal of inquiry. It is no wonder the Stardust committee recently indicated it is prepared to take its case to the European Court of Human Rights as it has become increasingly obvious that it will gain not a shred of justice in this jurisdiction even after nearly 26 years and with countrywide support for their case.
It is shocking and a strong indictment of the Taoiseach's lethargy on this issue that heroic women such as Ms Christine Keegan and her daughter Antoinette who lost so many members of their family because of this tragedy, with their colleagues, Ms Gertrude Barrett and others, still need to go out and protest in hail, rain and snow outside Government Buildings nearly 26 years later to try to ascertain the truth of what happened on 14 February 1981. As the Minister of State knows, there have been a series of reports about the issue in recent years starting with the famous book They Never Came Home: The Stardust Story by two young northside journalists, Neil Fetherstonhaugh and Tony McCullough. There was the famous "Prime Time Investigates" programme. Many representatives like me have received additional information and we feel that it is time this matter was brought to a just conclusion.
At the outset, let me say there is no need for the relatives to go out and protest at this stage. As the Deputy is aware, considerable progress has been made on the matter. Both the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste are most anxious that the process be concluded as quickly as possible. Following the meetings held with representatives of the victims with the director of the forensic science laboratory, the committee indicated that it would follow up with some final observations, which could be added to the material already under examination.
The extent of the detail and the complexity of the issues, however, were such that the examination of the technical and legal questions arising required more time than was originally anticipated. This examination concluded in December and a considered written response to the memorandum issued to the committee's solicitor on 15 December. I do not need to go into the exact detail as the Deputy is aware of it. The committee's solicitor was also informed that the Taoiseach, having consulted with the Tánaiste, would be willing to arrange for an external and independent examination of the committee's submission by an eminent legal person. Such an examination would include a full opportunity for the victim's committee to present and explain the points raised in its submission. The findings of this consideration would then further inform the deliberations on this issue. The precise arrangements and mechanisms of this examination are the subject of discussions with the committee's solicitor and the Tánaiste expects that it should be possible to finalise these shortly. The committee will have a meaningful opportunity to present its case to the independent examiner and the details of this arrangement can of course be worked out in consultation with the committee.
The Deputy will also be aware that, at the same time, arrangements have been made to put in place a process intended to lead to the identification of the five unidentified victims. This process is well advanced and the families in question are being kept fully informed and provided with access to counselling services, according to their wishes. Preparatory works at St. Fintan's Cemetery are in hand and it is expected that the exhumations will take place next week. This exercise will be followed by DNA analysis which should produce results in approximately two months. There are no guarantees that a successful identification will be possible but I am sure everyone in this House will join with the Tánaiste and me in wishing the families well during this difficult time.
I am aware of the Deputy's keen interest in the matter and I appeal to him that it is not necessary for any further protest. The Tánaiste and the Taoiseach are particularly committed to seeing this process through and everything is being done to ensure it happens as quickly as possible.