Minister approves application to withhold secret files from Arlene inquest
A Government minister has signed off on a bid to withhold top-secret files from the inquest of a murdered schoolgirl amid apparent concerns they could harm the public interest.
Northern Ireland Office minister Ben Wallace has approved the Public Interest Immunity (PII) application for a series of documents linked to the case of Arlene Arkinson. The final decision on whether it will be granted rests with the coroner.
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 terrorist cases in Northern Ireland, lawyers for the Arkinson family have questioned why PII issues would be at play at the inquest of a missing schoolgirl.
Arlene, 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 last year.
Howard was acquitted of the teenager's murder by a jury that was unaware of his previous conviction for murdering a schoolgirl in south London. He always remained the police's prime suspect in the Arkinson case.
The long-delayed inquest is due to finally get under way on Monday in Belfast. The probe could take up to 10 weeks.
Coroner Brian Sherrard is set to hear legal submissions on the PII application on Tuesday, with at least part of the hearing due to be held behind closed doors.
At a final preliminary hearing at Belfast's Laganside Court on Friday, counsel to the coroner Frank O'Donoghue QC stressed that Mr Sherrard had the final decision on the fate of the PII bid.
"You have to decide whether the materials should be released for the purposes of the inquest," he told the coroner.
Arlene's sister Kathleen watched from the public gallery. She is due to give a personal statement to court on Monday.
Howard, 71, had also been due to give evidence before the inquest. He died at HMP Frankland in Co Durham last October.
The inquest is being heard without a jury, with proceedings streamed to Omagh courthouse for the missing teenager's family.