Police refused more time to disclose files on missing Co Tyrone schoolgirl

Arlene Arkinson
Arlene Arkinson

A coroner has refused to allow police more time to disclose files to an already long delayed inquest for a disappeared schoolgirl.

Brian Sherrard said he was not prepared to extend an end of August deadline for detectives to security vet murder investigation papers on the Arlene Arkinson case.

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

The 15-year-old 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 south London teenager Hannah Williams 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 eventually convenes.

In the eight years since the preliminary inquest process began, a number of fixed hearing dates have been scrapped due to delays in disclosing papers. The latest occurred last month when a scheduled September start date was pushed back to November.

The listed November 2 commencement is dependent on police completing disclosure by August 30.

At the latest preliminary hearing in Belfast Coroner’s Court today, a lawyer for the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) told Mr Sherrard that officers felt unable to meet that timetable.

Mark Robinson said: “It gives me no pleasure to raise these points with the court but at this stage I can say police don’t believe it is possible to comply with the August 30 deadline.”

Mr Robinson insisted officers were working “strenuously” to complete the task but pointed out that every single page of more than 70 files had to be pored over.

He said two additional officers had been deployed to work specifically on the Arkinson papers.

However, the lawyer stressed the task was being conducted by an active PSNI murder investigation team, so officers were liable to be diverted to crime scenes at any time.

Mr Sherrard acknowledged the disclosure exercise was “lengthy and complex” but said he did not accept that more time was needed.

The coroner told Mr Robinson that if appropriate resources were focused on the task it could be completed before the deadline.

“If there were more officers engaged on this it could be done by the end of August,” he said.

Mr Robinson replied: “The resources simply aren’t there.”

The coroner told the court he was charged with ensuring a timely investigation of the case was carried out and, as such, he was not prepared to allow further slippage.

“This is a resource issue and the public expectation is this matter is dealt with in a timely fashion so long after the disappearance of this young woman,” he said.

“So I’m going to stick to the timetable we have and I would like you (Mr Robinson) to communicate my wish back to your client.

“There is a very real obligation on us all to do all we can to get this matter listed and get this matter concluded.”

With a body having never been found, lawyers for Howard intend to challenge the presumption that Arlene is dead.

But police on both sides of the Irish border maintain she was a murder victim and their investigations into her disappearance are on-going.

The arduous process of security vetting 70-plus case files before disclosure has been further 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, which the coroner will ultimately rule on, include matters of national security or the protection of police methodologies, such as the use of informers.

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