Arlene Arkinson inquest date set for next year

Arlene Arkinson disappeared in August 1994
Arlene Arkinson disappeared in August 1994

The family of missing schoolgirl Arlene Arkinson have said they are pleased a new date has been set for an inquest.

The coroner’s investigation into the disappearance of the teenager over 20 years ago was postponed in May after a development in the police investigation prompted fresh digs for her body.

At a preliminary hearing in Belfast it was revealed that 92 new searches had failed to find Arlene and it was agreed the inquest should start next September.

Senior coroner John Leckey said: “I am very keen that I am in a position to hold the inquest. That is very much in the interests of the family.”

Fifteen-year-old Arlene, from Castlederg, Co Tyrone, went missing in August 1994 after a night out at a disco across the Irish border in Co Donegal.

In 2005 convicted child-killer Robert Howard, who was the last person seen with her, was acquitted of her murder.

The trial jury was unaware of his history of sex attacks and his conviction for killing south London teenager Hannah Williams in 2001.

The 69-year-old, who is serving a life sentence at HMP Frankland in Co Durham, is expected to give evidence via videolink at the inquest on September 7, 2015.

Arlene’s sister, Kathleen Arkinson, said: “We are happy. We have waited 20 years so what is a few more months.”

The inquest, expected to last for more than a month, will take place at Laganside court complex in Belfast.

Ms Arkinson said they hoped videolink facilities would be set up in Omagh courthouse so her family would not have to travel.

“By September it will be 21 years since Arlene went missing,” she added. “It has been a long time; a long fight. But, we will get there. Hopefully we will have screens in Omagh so, we can watch from there. But, to be honest I don’t care where it is as long as we get justice for Arlene.”

The preliminary inquiry at Mays Chambers also heard that Howard’s lawyers would be contesting the assumption that Arlene is dead.

Karen Quinlivan QC said “You cannot work on the assumption that Arlene is dead.”

The barrister said they would also be arguing against redactions made to Social Services documents which could show the teenager had a motive for running away.

“The issue of whether or not she had a motive for running away from home is clearly relevant to the issue of whether she’s alive or not,” Ms Quinlivan said.

Difficulties with the disclosure of documents from the PSNI were also raised. Ms Quinlivan said some material had been rendered useless and illegible because of “unwarranted” redactions.

Mark Robinson, representing the PSNI, said Major Investigation Team (MIT) officers had carried out the redactions to speed up proceedings and told the court they were proposals which had to be approved by the coroner.

Mr Robinson said: “The MIT, to assist the court, volunteered to do the redactions. If that had not been done, we would not be here. We would have had to join a queue.”

Another preliminary hearing has been scheduled for November 7.

Henry Toner QC, lawyer for the Arkinson family said it was important to bring the case to a conclusion.

He said: “It is eight years since we started this inquest and we must ensure that everything is done to bring it to finality.”

Meanwhile, Ms Arkinson said her siblings Paula, Anita, Adrian and Martin wished to thank their legal team and the coroner.

They also expressed gratitude to members of the public who had co-operated with a police appeal for DNA samples earlier this year.