Northern Ireland news

Child killer Robert Howard 'posed extreme danger' to Arlene Arkinson

 Howard (71) was acquitted of the teenager's murder by a jury that was unaware of his previous conviction for killing a 14-year-old schoolgirl
Lesley-Anne McKeown, PA

THE prime suspect in the case of murdered teenager Arlene Arkinson posed an extreme danger to vulnerable girls, a coroners' court has been told.

Convicted child killer Robert Howard, who was last to see the 15-year-old alive, had a string of convictions, including rape, that dated back decades and was on bail when she vanished in August 1994.

The claims were made during the opening day of a long-delayed inquest into the schoolgirl's death.

Frank O'Donoghue QC, counsel for the coroners service, said: "There is evidence to suggest that Robert Howard back on August 14 1994 had very significant propensities that made him extremely dangerous to a person such as Arlene."

Arlene, from Castlederg, Co Tyrone, disappeared after a night out at a disco in Co Donegal.

Howard (71) was acquitted of the teenager's murder by a jury that was unaware of his previous conviction for killing schoolgirl Hannah Williams (14) in south London.

He always remained the police's main suspect in the Arkinson case but died in prison in Durham last year.

"Robert Howard was an extremely dangerous man who was quite capable of causing serious harm to Arlene," added Mr O'Donoghue.

Meanwhile, the court also heard how Arlene had a troubled background following the death of her mother when she was aged 11.

Her father battled an alcohol addiction and she had lived with a number of elder siblings who expressed concern about her behaviour and social circle.

Arlene had been sexually abused by her brother-in-law Seamus McGale who was convicted and jailed in 1993. He was released 10 days before she went missing.

Mr O'Donoghue added: "Arlene was a vulnerable teenager at the time she disappeared.

"Robert Howard was not the only person who had wronged her or to whom she was vulnerable."

On the evening of her disappearance, Arlene allegedly told friends she may have been pregnant.

The lawyer added: "She was confiding in some friends that she was pregnant and that the father was a person closely connected but not a member of the Arkinson family."

As her body has never been found, the "fact of the pregnancy" has never been proven, the court heard.

In their reports, school teachers described the teen as an "intelligent and well liked pupil" but said her poor attendance was likely to hold her back.

Although she had gone missing on several occasions Arlene had always contacted a family member within 48 hours.

The inquest process, which was started nine years ago, has been plagued by hold-ups, many due to the length of time police have taken to disclose classified papers to the court.

Not all documents have been handed over and last week it emerged that a Government minister had signed off on a bid to withhold some top-secret files amid apparent concerns they could harm the public interest.

Judge Brian Sherrard, who is presiding over the inquest, is expected to hear legal submissions on the public interest immunity (PII) application on Tuesday, with at least part of the hearing due to be held behind closed doors.

Mr O'Donoghue said the purpose of the inquest was to establish who the deceased was; where, when and why she came by her death.

It was not, he claimed, a retrial of Robert Howard or to solely focus on the inadequacy of any investigations by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Police Service of Northern Ireland or An Garda Siochana.

He added: "The tardiness of the police has been a focus of considerable scrutiny. It is not the purpose of this inquest to put the police on trial for any shortcomings in their investigation."

The court heard only briefly from Arlene's sister Kathleen Arkinson who expressed gratitude that the inquest had finally begun.

Addressing Judge Sherrard she said: "Thank you for taking the time to go through with this hearing. I would like to thank my barristers and solicitors. Thank you very, very much. We appreciate it."

Ms Arkinson is expected to be recalled later in the week to give more substantial evidence.

The inquest is being heard without a jury, with proceedings streamed to Omagh courthouse in Co Tyrone to family members and friends.

Speaking outside the court, Ms Arkinson described her sister as a "blue-eyed girl".

Choking back tears, she said: "Mummy passed away when Arlene was 11 and Arlene was just the blue-eyed girl of the family. She was brilliant at art, she was good at school. I want people to know the real Arlene. She was our sister and she deserves to be found."

Ms Arkinson added that she hoped the long awaited inquest would help "ease" the family's pain.

The case has been adjourned.

The controversy surrounding the PII application reached the floor of the Stormont Assembly on Monday.

Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly raised concern about the move by the Northern Ireland Office during questions to DUP First Minister Arlene Foster.

Mrs Foster said it was "impossible" for her to determine the merits of the application, as she had not seen the documents, but she acknowledged the issue had caused upset for the family.

"It is something I know that is causing a lot of distress at present," she said.

The DUP leader said the murder of the schoolgirl was "one of the most horrific".

"It was made all the worse by the fact Arlene's body was never found," she added.

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