Almost exactly 27 years after Castlederg teenager Arlene Arkinson disappeared, a court has ruled that she was killed by convicted child rapist Robert Howard. The verdict delivered by coroner Brian Sherrard will vindicate her family’s fight to uncover the truth about her disappearance but it will only be partial closure.
Arlene’s body has never been found and there is no evidence of how she died. Those missing links will continue to nag at the family who have endured more than two decades of grief and finger-pointing since their 15-year-old sibling was seen in Howard’s car after a night out in Bundoran.
The coroner paid tribute to the family both for their care of Arlene after her mother died in 1990 and for their relentless quest for the truth. He was at pains to point out that rumours that the family were involved in her disappearance and that she was pregnant were without foundation, and that will be a great relief to her siblings.
The family has always believed that Howard was responsible for Arlene’s disappearance, even though he was acquitted of her murder in 2005. However the jury had not been told of his history of sexual offences or that he had been convicted of the murder and rape of a London schoolgirl. One thing that emerged from the evidence presented to the coroner’s court was that the investigation into Arlene’s disappearance left a lot to be desired. It is unbelievable that given Howard’s record he was not immediately arrested and questioned when the alarm over the missing girl was first raised.
As well, the inquest was started and stopped several times and like so many families seeking justice for historic crimes the Arkinson family was let down by the length of the legal process.
Arlene’s disappearance and death does not fall within the definition of legacy cases — people killed or maimed during the Troubles — but it shows the wrong-headedness of Boris Johnson’s proposals to offer a de facto amnesty for those paramilitaries or state forces who killed outside the law during the Troubles.
The Arkinson family have got a truth of sorts and an official court verdict which lends credence to their long held beliefs on what happened.
However, in future if the Prime Minister’s proposals are railroaded through because of his large Commons majority, none of the 3,400-plus bereaved families here will never get a similar outcome. A line will be drawn through their grief to appease Tory voters and military chiefs.