A coroner has told police it is time to “put up or shut up” on whether they believe holding an inquest for a missing Co. Tyrone schoolgirl will compromise their murder investigation.
Brian Sherrard said he wanted the PSNI to make clear if it wanted his probe into Arlene Arkinson’s disappearance in 1994 to go ahead.
His robust ultimatum came after the PSNI indicated parts of its files being supplied to Belfast’s coroner’s court could be blanked out over concerns making the information public could prejudice its “live” murder inquiry.
The process of getting to a full inquest hearing has already been dogged by years of delay, much of it caused by logjams over the disclosure of police documents.
Arlene, from Castlederg, vanished after a night out at a disco across the border in Co. Donegal in August 1994.
She was last seen with convicted child killer Robert Howard.
Eleven years later, Howard was acquitted of her murder.
The trial jury was unaware of his history of sex attacks and his conviction for strangling south London teenager Hannah Williams in 2001.
Mr Sherrard, who has taken over the case from Northern Ireland’s retiring senior coroner John Leckey, said he wanted the PSNI to decide at the “highest level possible” whether it was going to apply for the planned inquest in September to be adjourned.
“Police, themselves, they need to sit down and decide is the inquest viable or can’t it sit comfortably beside, or potentially prejudice, a live investigation,” he said.
“If police conclude that it does potentially compromise a live investigation, then I think police must make that clear to me.
“It’s time to put up or shut up in that regard.”
During a preliminary hearing in Belfast, Mr Sherrard stressed the ultimate decision of whether it would be appropriate to hold the probe in September would be his, but said if the PSNI wanted to make an application on the viability of the hearing it had to do it without delay.
“I’m not going to be sympathetic to applications arising in the mouth of the inquest or during the inquest as a result of possible prejudice to a live investigation arising from material genuinely being discussed at the inquest,” he said.
Kevin Rooney QC, representing the PSNI, assured Mr Sherrard a decision would be taken within seven days.
“Police will make a decision whether this inquest will prejudice the ongoing investigation and a decision will be made at the highest level,” he said.
He said the PSNI was “extremely keen” that an inquest was heard but said commanders had to balance that desire with the potential risk to the murder probe.
Noting Mr Rooney’s pledge, Mr Sherrard said everyone involved in the inquest acknowledged the police’s role and the importance that the “interests of justice are served” in the case.
The officer leading the murder investigation, Detective Superintendent Karen Baxter, was in court for this morning’s hearing.
The inquest had been due to start last May but was adjourned at the PSNI’s request to enable detectives to undertake a series of, ultimately, unsuccessful searches for the teenager’s body.
Noting the “vexed” disclosure issues he had inherited from Mr Leckey, Mr Sherrard set a final date of July 10 for all requested state documents to be ready for distribution to the various legal parties.
“That is the line in the sand,” he said.
Howard, now in his 70s, is due to give evidence at the inquest when it convenes.
His barrister again voiced concern at the viability of the September 1 start date, citing continuing problems gaining access to state files.
Karen Quinlivan QC said even the July 10 date was too late to give her and colleagues enough time to analyse the documents.
“We couldn’t professionally represent our client on September 1,” she said.
With a body having never been found, lawyers for Howard - who is serving a life sentence at HMP Frankland in County Durham - intend to challenge the presumption Arlene is dead at the inquest.
But police on both sides of the Irish border maintain she was a murder victim and their investigations into her disappearance are ongoing.
Mr Sherrard scheduled another preliminary hearing for June 24 to enable the court to be updated on the PSNI’s position on the inquest’s viability.