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Police bid to withhold information 'not about protecting embarrassing facts'

Published 03/03/2016

Arlene Arkinson vanished in 1994
Arlene Arkinson vanished in 1994
The chief suspect in Arlene Arkinson's murder may have been a police informer.

A police bid to withhold information from the Arlene Arkinson inquest is not about hiding embarrassing revelations, a commander has insisted

Controversy has surrounded the Government's application to prevent certain documents being made public on the grounds it may harm the public interest.

Coroner Brian Sherrard has yet to rule on the Public Interest Immunity (PII) application, which was lodged by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) on behalf of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris was questioned about the move by members of his oversight body, the NI Policing Board, in Belfast on Thursday.

His attention was drawn to claims that the chief suspect in Arlene's murder - convicted child killer Robert Howard - may have been a police informer.

But Mr Harris insisted the motivation behind the PII bid was to protect methodologies detectives had used while investigating Howard.

"It is not about protecting embarrassing facts, it is all about protecting important areas of policing operations which we would seek to remain confidential so they can be used in other such serious crimes going forward," he said.

Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly and Ulster Unionist Ross Hussey had both questioned the rationale for not disclosing information in a non-conflict related case during the public board meeting.

Mr Harris said: "The stark reality is Robert Howard is not a singular or unique case.

"There will be other Robert Howards and we will have to investigate other terrible crimes and we still have open on the books very many serious crimes where such methodologies we would wish to use.

"So covert investigative techniques to gather information and indeed evidence to bring perpetrators before justice."

He added: "Regrettably this is not just about Robert Howard - it's about protecting society going forwards from those who would inflict the worst crimes - crimes of sexually motivated murder or other murders or other very serious crime, including terrorism, human trafficking, drugs trafficking - very serious offences where we need to have a full range of tactics."

The PII issue remains unresolved at the inquest, with Mr Sherrard having described it as a "work in progress".

At least three behind-closed doors meetings have taken place between lawyers representing the PSNI and Coroners Service.

Grounds for PII applications include matters of national security.

And while the Government has obtained such immunity on sensitive papers relating to legacy terrorist cases in Northern Ireland, doubt surrounds why such issues would be at play during an inquest into the death of a missing schoolgirl.

Last week, a witness at the inquest, Patricia Quinn - who denies having been Howard's girlfriend - claimed the sex offender was working as a police informer.

During previous high profile inquests, police policy has been to neither confirm nor deny whether someone was providing secret intelligence.

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