The latest preliminary hearing of the Stardust fire inquests gets under way in Dublin this afternoon.

The proceedings have faced delays in recent times after some families of the victims were unable to access legal aid.

However, new regulations signed by the Minister for Justice last month have allowed them to now access legal aid and be represented at these hearings.

It is expected that the remaining pre-inquest hearings will iron out the preliminary issues that need to be addressed or resolved, ahead of the start of the inquests over the coming months.

So, how did it get to this point? And what is expected to happen in the coming months as the inquests get under way?

Stardust fire

The fire at the Stardust nightclub in Artane, north Dublin, happened in the early hours of 14 February 1981.

Hundreds of mostly young people had gone to the venue for the Valentine's disco, where male and female dancing champions would be crowned.

A fire quickly ripped through the Stardust building shortly after the dancing competition ended. It saw 48 people lose their lives and several hundred more were injured.

Many of the victims were from the nearby areas such as Coolock and Artane. The local community, along with the nation, reeled in shock after the events.

The fire destroyed much of the building in Artane, north Dublin

A Tribunal of Inquiry was quickly set up by the government. Its report concluded that the blaze was probably caused by arson. While it criticised some of the safety standards and how the venue was managed, the report's conclusion exonerated the owners of the Stardust from being legally responsible for what happened.

Families and survivors disputed that conclusion for many years and were upset that it appeared to lay the blame on those who were in the club that night.

For many years since the families been calling for fresh inquiries into the Stardust fire.

At several junctures, after sustained campaigning from families, the government has commissioned reports examining aspects of the events.

In 2009, the Dáil heard that the original arson finding was "hypothetical" and agreed that no one who was there that night could be held responsible.

However, families continued their campaign seeking further inquiries to establish the circumstances of the tragedy.

In September 2019, the Attorney General ordered that new inquests be conducted into the deaths of the 48 victims.

40 years on

In ordering the new inquests, the Attorney General said there had been "an insufficiency of inquiry as to how the deaths occurred".

The Attorney General also referenced the inquests into the Hillsborough Disaster in the UK in which inquests were granted 25 years after the football stadium tragedy in which 96 people died.

He said that "drawing on analogies from the Hillsborough case … there is the entitlement of the families of the victims to the public revelation of the facts … to maximise the chances that the truth should emerge".

He added that while the "considerable passage of time" and the potential unavailability of certain evidence would be reasons not to hold these inquests, he said "on balance" they should be permitted to go ahead.

Families welcomed the granting of the inquests and believe it could provide answers to the answers they seek 40 years on.

Antoinette Keegan was in the ballroom when the fire broke out. She escaped, but her two sisters, Mary and Martina, died in the blaze. Her mother Christine Keegan, who died in July 2020, had campaigned for decades for a new inquiry into the fire.

Antoinette Keegan lost two of her sisters in the fire

At the first pre-inquest hearing last October, Ms Keegan said she was confident that the new inquests will give answers to the families affected and will see justice for their loved ones. She said she believed that for the first time the victims will be portrayed as human beings, rather than numbers or statistics.

Gertrude Barrett, whose son Michael died in the blaze, returned to the Coroner's Court that afternoon almost 40 years after she came there for the first time.

Ms Barrett said she did not like the word closure but did hope that this process would bring justice. She said she felt she had served a life sentence of loss, as had every other family who suffered as a result of what happened that night.

The role of the inquests

The delay surrounding access to legal aid had frustrated families further in the year of the 40th anniversary of the fire. With that issue now addressed, it is their hope the inquests can now proceed swiftly.

Today will see the fourth pre-inquest hearing into the 48 victims of the Stardust disaster held in the RDS in Dublin. A bespoke courtroom has been built in the RDS for the Stardust inquest, with remote technology installed.

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the proceedings today will be conducted with a very limited attendance of legal representatives and staff.

In the first pre-inquest hearing, Dublin City Coroner Dr Myra Cullinane stressed that these inquests would be "entirely fresh" inquiries and would not be bound by the findings of "any other investigation".

As per the dedicated website for the inquests, an inquest "is a fact-finding exercise, conducted where an individual has died in certain circumstances".

It can seek to ascertain and provide answers to how a person died and the circumstances in which their death occurred.

"The inquest is a public enquiry to determine the truth," the inquests website said. "It is not a trial. It is an inquisitorial process to establish facts. An inquest is not a method of apportioning guilt or blame."

A number of relevant parties will be represented at these inquests, including most of the bereaved families, Dublin Fire Brigade, Dublin City Council, An Garda Síochána and Eamon Butterly, who ran the Stardust club at the time of the fire.

Coroner Dr Myra Cullinane has said that a significant amount of work has been undertaken by her team, with experts in the areas of fire investigation, forensic pathology and forensic toxicology already instructed in this regard.

It is expected that, as well as looking into the circumstances of how the victims died, Dr Cullinane will allow the families to deliver "pen portraits" of their loved ones.

This will see them given an opportunity to describe them in human terms, give an insight into the kind of person they were and allow them to be "remembered publicly as much more than one name amongst 48 names".

The Coroner has said this testimony will form an "integral part of the inquests". The inquests into those who lost their lives in the Hillsborough heard similar "pen portraits" of the 96 victims of that tragedy.

Families now hope the remaining preliminary issues can be ironed out swiftly ahead of the inquests getting fully under way in the near future.

Additional reporting - Fiona Mitchell, Samantha Libreri