We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

Northern Ireland

Public inquiry urged into child-killer’s activities amid ‘state agent’ claims

A coroner has ruled Robert Howard was responsible for the death of missing Tyrone teenager Arlene Arkinson.

A PUBLIC INQUIRY has been called for into the activities in Northern Ireland of convicted child killer Robert Howard, after he was found responsible, on the balance of probabilities, for the death of Co Tyrone schoolgirl Arlene Arkinson.

The 15-year-old went missing in August 1994 after a night out in Donegal.

Howard, originally from Co Laois, was charged with her murder in 2002, but acquitted in 2005.

He died in prison custody in England in 2015 while serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of 14-year-old Hannah Williams from London.

The young girl’s body has never been found, despite extensive searches.

Following a long-running inquest, coroner Brian Sherrard found that she died on the morning of Sunday August 14, 1994 and that Howard was responsible.

Reacting to the coroner’s ruling, Arlene Arkinson’s sister Kathleen urged Northern Ireland’s justice minister Naomi Long to establish a public inquiry into Howard’s activities in Northern Ireland.

She said she believes Howard was a state agent.

“This was a 14-year-old inquest, nearly as long as Arlene’s life,” she said outside Omagh courthouse.

“An inquest that Howard and the state never wanted. It was opened in November 2007 and only finishes today.

“Twenty-seven years on from Arlene’s murder, I am still searching for her body. What else can I do? What else would anyone expect me to do?

searcharlene-arkinson-5-310x415 Arlene Arkinson Image: PA Images

“Despite what has happened, I have placed my faith in our justice system and went with it.

“Therefore I appeal to the Justice Minister (Naomi Long) to examine Arlene’s case carefully.

“When she does, she will see that the need for a public inquiry into the activities of Robert Howard in this jurisdiction, and his status as an agent for the RUC, which has led to death and misery for many people, will be unavoidable.

“I guarantee the minister that the more she looks into Arlene’s case, the more outraged and terrified she will be on behalf of the public.

“But above all I want a Christian burial for my sister. In seeking the truth, through public inquiry, maybe I will achieve that.”

When contacted, a Department of Justice spokesperson said that the minister has “no powers” with regards to setting up an inquiry. 

“While fully appreciating that the past 27 years have been deeply traumatic for the Arkinson family as they have continued to grieve and search for answers on behalf of Arlene, the Minister has no powers in this respect and any inquiry would be for the UK government to consider.”

Arkinson family solicitor Des Doherty said he also suspected Howard was a police agent.

He questioned the state’s move during the inquest process to exempt some evidence by seeking public interest immunity (PII) certification.

“What was all that about, what was going on there, who or what were they protecting?” he said.

Asked if he believed Howard was allowed to get away with murder, Doherty said:

“Well that’s what the family are saying, and I support the family fully in that view.

“What other conclusion can you come to, because he did get away with murder?”

He said a public inquiry would be able to compel all the surviving former police officers involved in the case to give evidence about what they knew about Howard.

Delivering his findings at Omagh courthouse yesterday, the coroner said: “Robert Howard, a violent sexual offender, and the last person to be seen with Arlene in the early hours of August 14, 1994, was responsible for her death.

“The mechanism of death is unknown.

“The court is confident of the date of death as Howard began establishing an alibi from the morning of August 14, 1994 at a time when Arlene’s disappearance had not become known.”

The coroner also ruled that the death happened in Northern Ireland but the precise location remains unknown.

“However the court is confident that Arlene’s remains were secreted in this jurisdiction,” he said, adding that Howard was familiar with the Castlederg area and the nearby Irish border was then actively patrolled by the security forces.

The coroner noted “quasi admissions” by Howard, such as his inquiries to a number of police officers about serving his sentence in Northern Ireland if he admitted to certain things, needing help but being afraid to take the next step, living in fear, crossing the road when he saw a police officer, being haunted and seeing a face in a crowd and being reminded of the girl.

download Convicted child killer Robert Howard Credit: PA Images

He said they “fell short of a confession but indicate culpability”.

Arlene was last seen alive on August 14, 1994 in a car with Howard.

The St Eugene’s High School student, whose mother had died in 1990, was noted as being known to social services, but the coroner paid tribute to the commitment by her six older siblings to her welfare as “truly remarkable”.

The inquest, which has been running for more than a decade, was described as having “re-energised” police investigations on both sides of the border.

Sherrard said the findings of the inquest had originally been scheduled to be delivered in March 2020, but were delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and other issues.

Concluding his findings, he said: “I would like to reflect on Arlene, who would now be a woman in her 40s, and it is a matter of profound regret that Arlene did not get to live her life and to live to her full potential.

“And I would also like to reflect on the very grave injustice that has been done ultimately to the Arkinson family due to the actions of Robert Howard, and I would like to reflect on the exhaustive manner in which Kathleen (Arlene’s sister) in particular has driven this case from the first days after the disappearance right through to today, and that is remarkable and Arlene herself has been served exceptionally well by her family in the intervening 27 years.”

PSNI Detective Chief Superintendent Raymond Murray said: “I realise that this is another tragic milestone along that desperate road since Arlene disappeared all those years ago.

“We will now take time to consider the coroner’s judgment in full and assess its findings and we will be in contact with the family through their solicitor in due course.”

By Rebecca Black and Cate McCurry, PA

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel