On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, I would like to thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The Minister regrets that he is unable to be present today due to other business.
As the Minister has previously emphasised, irrespective of any differences of opinion, no-one disputes the magnitude of the tragedy or the impact it had on the families concerned and on the wider community. We are all conscious that this Friday is the anniversary of the fire and all of our thoughts and sympathies are with those affected by this tragedy.
The Deputy is of course familiar with the background to the concerns relating to the cause of the Stardust Fire and the Minister has responded previously to queries he has raised on behalf of members of the Victims Committee, so I will not revisit the full history of the case on the Minister’s behalf.
At essence is the Committee’s long running campaign for a new inquiry into the cause of the fire. As the Deputy is well aware, this led to a detailed submission being made several years ago setting out the case for a new inquiry, criticising the original Tribunal and setting out an alternative hypothesis as to the cause of the fire. The professional advice to the Government at the time was that the arguments being presented did not amount to new evidence, but the Committee rejected this assessment.
It was precisely in response to this situation, and with a desire to resolve this question definitively and impartially, that an Independent Examination was put in place. Mr Paul Coffey SC was appointed to carry out this exercise, to provide for an entirely objective and professional assessment of the Committee’s call for a new inquiry, and his appointment and Terms of Reference were agreed with the Committee and their legal representatives.
The Victims Committee were provided with considerable financial assistance to make their case and had a full legal team to present that case over three days of hearings.
The outcome of that process was a very significant one, in that it led to resolutions in both Houses clarifying that no-one can present on the night can be held responsible, a key concern on the part of many, and a central component of the Committee’s criticism of the original Tribunal.
Mr. Coffey further concluded, however, that in the absence of any identified evidence as to the cause of the fire, the most another inquiry could achieve would be another set of hypothetical findings, which would not be in the public interest.
As the Deputy is aware, these findings were endorsed by motions in both Houses of the Oireachtas and were widely welcomed at the time.
Since then, however, members of the Committee have continued to contend that their theory as to its cause of the fire is in fact what transpired. Nothing the Minister has seen, however, would warrant a departure from Mr. Coffey’s findings.
Issues have been raised by members of the Committee about the Coffey process, on the basis that these themselves justify a further inquiry. There has been an entirely unfounded suggestion that attempts were made to influence his drafting or conclusions. The Minister has previously made it clear, for the avoidance of doubt, that no such influence was brought to bear. Unwarranted significance has been attributed to changes between a draft report and the final report. Extracts have been cited out of context and without regard to Mr. Coffey’s actual recommendations, which were materially unchanged. Of course, the nature of draft reports is that they do change and the Government of the day clearly had to rely on the final report submitted by Mr. Coffey. Mr. Coffey’s conclusions and advice were entirely independent, and as I have said, were widely welcomed upon publication.
The Minister is also aware that allegations have been made to the Gardaí concerning evidence presented to the original Tribunal. The Deputy will appreciate that these are a matter for the Gardaí to examine in the normal way and it would not be appropriate for him to comment on that process.
Clearly, members of the Victims Committee do not accept the outcome of the Independent Process which was put in place to enable them present their case for a new inquiry. The persons in question have made it very clear that they will continue to campaign for a new inquiry. The Minister sympathises greatly with them, but having regard to the outcome of the Independent Examination, and in the absence of new evidence concerning the actual cause of the fire, he does not see that it is open to him to disregard the advice which emerged from that process, and which was endorsed in both Houses of the Oireachtas.
The Minister has also indicated that he will of course arrange for the examination as appropriate of a further submission on behalf of the Committee but in saying this would again caution against raising unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved or appearing to suggest that the outcome of the Coffey examination can be set aside, simply on the basis that his conclusions are not accepted by some.
It is right, of course, that concerns about this dreadful and tragic event should be raised in this House and on behalf of the Minister I again thank the Deputy for raising this matter.