Two-month delay in Arlene Arkinson case

Arlene Arkinson
Arlene Arkinson

A long-delayed inquest for a disappeared schoolgirl has been postponed again after police admitted they would not meet a deadline to disclose files to the court.

Coroner Brian Sherrard said he knew the development would cause “regret and distress” to the family of Co Tyrone teenager Arlene Arkinson.

The process of security vetting 70 files in the case has been complicated by the prospect of the PSNI applying for Public Interest Immunity (PII) on three of the files, in a bid to stop their contents being outlined in court.

Grounds for PII applications include matters of national security or information about how informers are used.

While the PSNI has obtained such immunity on papers relating to terror cases, it has not outlined why it would apply for PII in the case of a missing schoolgirl.

Arlene, from Castlederg, vanished after a night out at a disco across the Irish border in Co Donegal in August 1994.

She was last seen with convicted child killer Robert Howard.

Eleven years later, Howard was acquitted of her murder.

The trial jury was unaware of his history of sex attacks and his conviction for strangling a teenager in 2001.

Howard, now in his 70s and serving a life sentence in HMP Frankland in Co Durham, is due to give evidence at the inquest when it convenes.

It had been due to run at the start of September, but that depended on the PSNI completing disclosure of the case files by July 10.

Kevin Rooney QC, representing the PSNI, told Mr Sherrard: “They will be really pushed to have this done by the end of September.”

Mr Sherrard said it was with regret that he had to re-list the case for November 2. He issued the PSNI with a new disclosure date of the end of August.

He asked Mr Rooney: “Is there anything that can be done from a resources perspective that can speed this up?”

The barrister replied: “I just don’t see it happening unless someone else comes in to give assistance to those working on it. And resources, I’m told, are not available.”

Even the new hearing date is in doubt as Howard’s legal representatives insist that timescale would still not give them sufficient time to analyse the disclosed documents.

Confirming the scrapping of the September start date, Mr Sherrard said: “This is a matter of some regret to me and I know it will be a matter of some regret and distress to everyone concerned, in particular to the family of Miss Arkinson.

“Nevertheless we have to be realistic and pragmatic.”

At the last preliminary hearing, Mr Sherrard had asked the PSNI to make clear whether it thought holding an inquest would compromise its on-going investigation into Arlene’s disappearance.

Mr Rooney reported back to court that police wanted the inquest to go ahead and would not try to prevent any new documents being provided to court that may emerge in the coming weeks and months as a consequence of the murder probe.

The officer leading the investigation, Detective Superintendent Karen Baxter, was in court for this afternoon’s proceedings.

Arlene’s sister Kathleen was also in Belfast coroner’s court for the hearing. Afterwards she said her fight for justice would go on.

Thanking the coroner and her legal team, she said: “I am not that disappointed at the delay, I’m glad a date has been set for November. Arlene will be murdered 21 years in August. We have waited this long, we might as well wait another two months - there is nothing more you can do. As long as I get there in the end.

“I will never give up, never.”