Secretary of State defends witholding of Arlene Arkinson files

Robert Howard, the now-dead prime suspect in Arlene Arkinson's disappearance
Robert Howard, the now-dead prime suspect in Arlene Arkinson's disappearance

A controversial Government decision not to disclose some files to the inquest of a murdered schoolgirl has been defended by Theresa Villiers.

Although ministerial intervention in the case of Arlene Arkinson is “unusual”, the Northern Ireland Secretary said it was necessary to prevent publication of information which could hamper future police investigations.

Theresa Villiers

Theresa Villiers

Her intervention came the same day that an ex-RUC man recalled the teenager’s suspected killer clam up as he tried to obtain information.

A coroner has sought clarification on the grounds for a controversial Government bid to withhold a number of documents from the inquest of a murdered schoolgirl.

The Public Interest Immunity (PII) application was made by the Northern Ireland Office amid claims information in the top-secret files on Arlene Arkinson’s death could potentially damage the public interest.

Coroner Brian Sherrard heard legal submissions on the contentious move on Tuesday in a private hearing.

It was anticipated he would make a ruling on the PII application on Wednesday.

At the start of Wednesday’s hearing at Belfast Laganside courts, the coroner said “some useful work” had been done at the private hearing but said he would need further information before making a final decision.

“This remains a work in progress,” he told the court.

“I have asked for clarification on a number of the proposed redactions. As a result of that I anticipate I may have to reconvene the PII hearing.”

He added: “I remain live to the particular concerns that have been raised.”

In a public court hearing ahead of Tuesday’s behind-closed-doors session, it emerged that the classified files name a man interrogated by paramilitaries and the person whose bogus tip-off prompted police to dig up a bereaved family member’s garden.

Lawyers for the Arkinson family had argued that the identities of those individuals should be made public.

Arlene, a 15-year-old from Castlederg, Co Tyrone, vanished after a night out at a disco across the Irish border in Co Donegal in 1994. Her body has never been found.

She was last seen with convicted child killer Robert Howard, who died in prison last year.

Despite being acquitted of the murder by a jury unaware of his long record of sex crimes, including the murder of a south London schoolgirl, he always remained the police’s prime suspect in Arlene’s death.

Controversy erupted last week, just days before the long-delayed inquest was due to start, when the Government signed off on the PII bid.

Grounds for PII include matters of national security or the protection of police methodologies such as the use of informers.

While the Government has obtained such immunity on sensitive papers relating to legacy terrorist cases in Northern Ireland, doubt surrounds why such issues would be at play at the inquest into the death of a missing schoolgirl.

One section of the papers subject to the PII application relate to an unnamed individual who had been abducted and questioned about the murder by the republican Irish National Liberation Army (INLA).

The files also refer to an episode two years after Arlene disappeared when police, accompanied by members of the media, arrived at the home of her sister Kathleen Arkinson and dug up the house and garden searching for a body. Nothing was found.

Howard, 71, had been due to give evidence before the inquest.

He died at HMP Frankland in Co Durham last October.

The opening day of the inquest heard evidence that Arlene may have been pregnant.