Northern Ireland

Arlene Arkinson: Coroner needs more clarity on withheld details

Arlene Arkinson disappeared in 1994 after a school disco in county Donegal
Image caption Arlene Arkinson disappeared in 1994 after a school disco in county Donegal

A coroner has asked for further clarity about a bid to withhold information from an inquest into the death of Arlene Arkinson.

The Public Interest Immunity (PII) application was made by the Northern Ireland Office amid claims information in files on the schoolgirl's death could potentially damage the public interest.

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

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

At the opening of Wednesday's hearing, Mr Sherrard said "some useful work" had been done at the private hearing.

However, he added that he would need further information before making a final decision.

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

Image caption The teenager was last seen in a car driven by convicted killer Robert Howard

"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 hearing ahead of Tuesday's behind-closed-doors session, it emerged that the classified files name both 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, county Tyrone, vanished after a night out at a disco in county 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

The case became embroiled in controversy 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 cases in Northern Ireland, there is confusion over 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 county Durham last October.

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