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Coroner issues warning to police over Arlene Arkinson inquest delays

Published 21/10/2015

Kathleen Arkinson and her son leave Laganside court in Belfast after a preliminary inquest hearing for her sister Arlene Arkinson.
Kathleen Arkinson and her son leave Laganside court in Belfast after a preliminary inquest hearing for her sister Arlene Arkinson.

A coroner has warned he will summon senior police officers to explain the delays in disclosing papers to an inquest for missing teenager Arlene Arkinson.

Brian Sherrard said he would call a superintendent or assistant chief constable to court if the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) failed to meet a deadline later this month.

He said: "This is a very, very old case now. There are pressing reasons why we all need to tighten our belts to get this work done."

Arlene Arkinson, 15, from Castlederg, Co Tyrone vanished after a night out at a disco across the Irish border in Co Donegal in 1994.

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

Despite extensive searches Arlene's remains have never been found.

In eight years of preliminary proceedings, a number of fixed hearing dates have been scrapped due to delays in disclosing papers.

At a brief preliminary hearing in Belfast's Laganside court complex, a barrister for the PSNI said 33 files had been handed over since last Friday and promised a further 10 would be ready by the end of this week.

The remainder would be disclosed by the end of the month, he said.

Kevin Rooney QC, said: "Literally, they have been working flat out to try to get this exercise completed."

Issues with disclosure are understood to centre on heavy redactions on the documentation and the human rights of individuals whose identity have been protected.

Mr Sherrard said he wanted to hear how officers intended to "get over" obstacles currently holding up the process.

"We find ourselves in a situation where we are constantly readdressing this timetable. It compromises the integrity of the inquest and the potentially compromises the start date of the inquest.

"It is my strong opinion that we need to hear from the police with regards to issues they are having and what they can do."

However, the coroner agreed t o adopt a wait-and-see approach - saying he did not want to introduce an "aggravating delay".

He added: "I anticipate that the remainder of the bundles will be shared by the end of this month. If that does not happen, for whatever reason, then there will be a preliminary hearing on Tuesday, November 3 and at that preliminary hearing I would expect either (the superintendent) or her ACC to attend."

In 2005, Howard was acquitted of Arlene's murder but the trial jury was unaware of his history of sex attacks and his conviction for strangling south London teenager Hannah Williams four years earlier.

The 71-year-old, who was serving a life sentence at HMP Frankland in Co Durham, had been due to give evidence at an inquest scheduled for September - but it was postponed.

He died earlier this month.

A new start date has been listed for February.

Ms Arkinson's family have expressed anger and frustration at the time lapse but have vowed to continue their quest for justice.

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