Arlene Arkinson inquest faces further delay as coroner awaits Garda answers

Arlene Arkinson.
Arlene Arkinson.

A long-running inquest into the death of a missing Northern Ireland schoolgirl has been delayed for a further two weeks as the coroner's office seeks answers from the Garda.

Arlene Arkinson, 15, from Castlederg in Co Tyrone, vanished after a night out in Co Donegal in the Irish Republic in 1994.

She was last seen in the company of a convicted child killer, the late Robert Howard.

Howard was always the prime suspect in her disappearance.

A grave in Co Sligo was exhumed in March, almost 20 years after a priest received an anonymous tip-off that a body wrapped in plastic sheeting found buried just below the surface could have been Arlene's.

Gravediggers found the body 2ft to 3ft down when opening the grave for another burial in 1996, but subsequently reburied it.

The phone call to the priest came in 1999. He informed gardai, but they did not pursue an exhumation at the time.

Around that time, a woman also wrote to a priest to say she had heard that, shortly after Arlene's disappearance, a man had persuaded some gravediggers to bury Arlene's body in a grave they were digging for a conventional burial.

At a previous hearing of the inquest, coroner Brian Sherrard was told that the remains examined belonged to an adult male, not a young girl.

He said then he was seeking "precise" answers about the exhumation.

Those included clarification about whether there was an additional body in the grave, other than the four formally registered as being buried there.

The coroner said he also needed to know whether all of the remains found in the plot had been examined, or just one.

At a hearing on Monday, counsel to the coroner said a response had been received by the gardai in terms of questions raised about the exhumation.

But he said a number of further issues required clarification and further correspondence had been sent to the gardai last Wednesday.

"To date there has not been any response to that correspondence," he told the inquest.

Mr Sherrard said he was "still in a state of some confusion" over the examination of the grave.

"It is incumbent on the inquest to see how far we can get," he said, adding that if the matter had been within his jurisdiction he would have "more authority to deal with this in a more direct way".

Counsel for Ms Arkinson's family, Henry Toner, said the matter was one of the final ones to be resolved in the inquest.

The next preliminary inquest is set for October 17.

Howard died in prison in 2015.

He was acquitted of Arlene's murder by a jury that was unaware of his previous conviction for murdering 14-year-old Hannah Williams, whose body was found in an industrial area close to the Thames Estuary in 2002.