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Former Stardust manager tells inquest he regrets ‘converting that factory into a nightclub'

STARDUST MANAGER EAMON Butterly has told an inquest that if he were to do anything different in matters surrounding the fire that killed 48 people, he “never” would have become involved with converting the former factory into a nightclub.

Butterly, who is in his fifth day as a witness at the inquests into the deaths of those who died in the fire, also denied that he had told “lies” over “contradictory” statements.

Butterly was being cross-examined today by Michael O’Higgins SC, about the blaze that swept through the Stardust club in the early hours of 14 February, 1981.

The jury has already heard that Butterly told gardaí that the practice of “draping” padlocked chains over the panic bars of exit doors in the nightclub “originated from the doormen” and was not something he ordered them to do. 

O’Higgins, representing a number of the families of the victims, has said there was a conflict between what Butterly originally told the gardaí and what he had told the jury in this inquest.

Butterly has agreed that he told a 1981 tribunal that he “100% owned” the decision to keep doors at the club locked but has told the ongoing inquest that this was a joint policy with door staff. 

Butterly (78) said the policy was the head doorman’s [Tom Kennan] initiative and could not say how much of the policy he was “willing to own”.

However, Butterly accepted that the evidence he has now given to the Dublin District Coroner’s Court is “contradictory” to evidence he gave to the original tribunal into the fire but denied any dishonesty. 

Today, O’Higgins put it to Butterly that the reason his accounts of events and conversations around the time with the now-deceased Kennan along with others were “so vague and contradictory is because they are not founded on truth”. 

Butterly replied: “Are you saying that I am telling lies?”, to which O’Higgins replied, “Yes, I am.”

“I am not telling lies,” said Butterly.

O’Higgins put it to Butterly that he had told gardaí in 1981 that a policy of draping chains over exit doors had only been in place for “three weeks” but had told the then tribunal it had been in place for years. 

Butterly said he had not been telling one version to the guards and another to the tribunal and had signed a statement from his solicitor to gardaí about questions on the exit-door policy.

O’Higgins suggested that the reference to three weeks, rather than years, was to “minimise the wrongdoing, to protect yourself against criticism and was self-serving and untrue”.

Butterly denied the suggestions made by O’Higgins.

O’Higgins asked Butterly: “Is there anything you would do differently?”

“The only thing: I would have never have gotten involved in converting that factory into a nightclub,” said Butterly.

O’Higgins asked Mr Butterly about ”big time” multi-million pound insurance claims that were submitted by the operating companies involved after the fire and was told by Butterly that he had no involvement in them and was also working the family farm at the time.

O’Higgins clarified to the jury that some claims had to be submitted inside two weeks after a potentially-claimable event.

Butterly told O’Higgins that he did not tell gardaí that any doors had been locked before the fire broke out but said that he had answered “all questions asked of me” and that the head doorman [Mr Kennan] had told Butterly that he had opened the doors before the fire.

“What’s missing is that you didn’t tell them the doors were locked,” said O’Higgins.

“They weren’t at the time of the fire,” said Butterly, who added that he was told by Kennan before the fire that “everything was ok”.

O’Higgins said that Kennan had given a statement to the 1981 tribunal that all doors were locked at around 11pm on the night except ‘exit [door] two’.

“That’s a big divergence between what he said and what you said. He is checking the doors and you are not. He is clearly in a better position,” said O’Higgins.

O’Higgins said the door policy was a “dog’s dinner”.

Butterly said that Mr Kennan “told me the doors were open at 11.30pm”.

“If you want to introduce a policy with obvious risks, do you not understand you need a really good template as to how it is to operate? Did it meet the needs of the policy? Did the system meet your policy?” asked O’Higgins.

Butterly said he did not have a policy in writing, but that staff had been trained in the use of fire-extinguishers.

O’Higgins said that after the fire the staff met “in shock” at around midday on 14 February when “whiskey was passed around”.

Butterly said he “certainly” did not supply any whiskey but that “everybody was in a daze, shell-shocked, with no sleep – it was a shocking morning”.

Butterly said that at that meeting Kennan told him that all the doors were open at the time of the fire and that he “always knew” the doors were open because Kennan consistently told him so.

“I am saying the doors were open. And I think all those people [staff and survivors] were… very happy. I am not saying anything was fabricated. I know the doors were open and Tom Kennan confirmed to me that he unlocked them,” said Butterly.

Butterly told Dáithí Mac Cárthaigh BL, representing the family of Marie Kennedy who died aged 17 in the fire, that he relied on the then Dublin Corporation for the use of fabric tiles on the walls of the interior of the club via a certificate of approval issued to the Stardust.

He said if that had not been received, the tiles would not have been put in place.

The inquest has already heard that, during the 1981 inquiry, evidence was given that the carpet tiles were the most substantial contributor to the spread of the fire.

The jury also heard evidence from Declan Conway, a sales representative for the company that provided the carpet tiles for the Stardust.

In his statement, Conway said that he spoke to Mr Butterly, who requested that Conway obtain a fire certificate from the manufacturer of the tiles.

Conway said he was able to get the certificate that met the British standard specification.  

Butterly said that it was accepted that it was “unusual” that such carpet-style tiles would be placed on the walls but stressed that Dublin Corporation had approved the use.

Mac Cárthaigh said: “People’s lives depended on it,” and asked if an “expert” in fire safety should not have been employed.

“I understood that if Dublin Corporation said you cannot rely on it then, therefore, I wouldn’t have put them on the wall,” said Butterly.

Mac Cárthaigh asked of a previous ‘Specials’ concert where it had been said that “sparks” were seen on the ceiling.

Butterly said that if sparks had been seen on the ceiling he would have been informed, as that there would have been a fire risk.

Mac Cárthaigh asked again whether it would not have been “proper and prudent” to consult an expert if a condition of the planning permission was that “wall coverings were part of the permission”.

Butterly said he did consult with Harold Gardner, who was not an architect but his father had told the witness that the now-deceased Gardner was so.

Butterly added that Gardner was not involved in the construction of the Stardust but only in the “re-doing” of the premises and repeated that he had a certificate from Dublin Corporation to proceed.

Butterly said the “most important people” in that regard were the officials at then Dublin Corporation and the receipt of their fire certificate meant the carpet tiling could go on the walls.

Butterly said that his understanding at the time was that if Dublin Corporation said he could not rely on the carpet tiles being on the walls then “I wouldn’t have put them on the walls”.

‘Contradictory’

At a previous sitting of the inquests, O’Higgins said that when Butterly was asked by gardaí about the policy of locking and unlocking exit doors, Mr Butterly had replied: “Exit doors five, six and one [of six doors in total], were normally opened between 11.30pm and 12am.”  

O’Higgins said that Butterly had told gardaí that most doormen had no responsibility for checking if the doors were unlocked, and this responsibility was placed on the head doorman [Kennan].    

O’Higgins said that gardaí had put it to Butterly that some doormen had said it was normal procedure to unlock fire exit doors before discos, and he was asked why this had not taken place on the night of February 13, 1981, until about midnight.  

“The policy of unlocking the remaining doors at approximately 11.30pm was forced on me by the fact that a large number of people were getting in for free due to the actions of their friends who were opening exit doors from the inside,” Mr Butterly told gardaí.

O’Higgins said that Butterly had told gardaí that “the policy of not opening exit doors five, six and one until approximately 11.30pm was decided on”.  

“The policy of doormen circulating the premises after they had finished their duties on the main door was another result of discussions between Tom Kennan, the other doormen and myself,” counsel said Butterly had said.  

“Does that say in very bald terms this was your policy?” asked O’Higgins.   

“It was saying that I agreed with what they said,” replied Butterly.  

“Was it your policy?” asked O’Higgins.  

“It was the policy of the security staff and me,” replied Butterly.   

“Is that a shift from what you told the jury last Thursday, when you said this was all Mr Kennan’s initiative?” asked O’Higgins.  

“It was Mr Kennan’s initiative,” replied Butterly.  

“How much of this policy are you willing to own?”  

“I can’t say,” replied Butterly.  

Referring to the original statements, O’Higgins said that Butterly had been asked who made the decision to keep the doors locked as people were getting in for free, to which Butterly said: “I made the decision myself.”  

“You’re owning it 100% there, aren’t you?” asked O’Higgins.  

“I am, yeah,” replied Butterly.  

O’Higgins said that at the original tribunal in 1981, Butterly had “owned the decision 100%,” and he asked why the witness was now telling the inquest jury the exact opposite.  

“I made the decision with Mr Kennan and (deputy head doorman) Mr Doyle,” said Butterly.  

O’Higgins asked him if he believed that the evidence he had given the tribunal and evidence he had given the inquest was the same, to which Butterly replied: “I’ve given the evidence to the best of my ability.”  

Coroner Dr Myra Cullinane said that the evidence which was heard last week and evidence heard from 1981 was different, and she asked Butterly which evidence he now stood over.  

“The ones I made here,” replied Mr Butterly.   

“In 1981, the decision was made between the three of us, so I went along with Mr Kennan. That’s what I believed last Thursday,” he said, adding: “It is contradictory all right, yeah.”  

He went on to say: “I believed what I said here, and now you’ve shown me what I said in the tribunal, I have to believe that as well.”

The inquests, which are being held at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin, resume tomorrow.