It’s an uncomfortable truism of the human condition that sociopaths are made, not born, and the life and death of the Irish child rapist and serial killer, Robert Howard, must surely rank as a testament to that fact. However, what make’s his story of violence and abuse so remarkable is the possibility that several of his depraved crimes took place while he was working as a spy or informer for the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the disgraced UK paramilitary police force in the north-east of Ireland, during a crucial period in the Long War or the so-called Irish-British “Troubles” of 1966-2005.
Robert “Bob” Howard was born in 1944, spending his earliest years in the rural community of Wolfhill, County Laois, a relatively isolated region in the southern midlands of Ireland. One of the younger siblings of a large, impoverished family he had a troubled childhood from almost the very beginning, exacerbated by his father’s drinking and violence, culminating in a burglary at the age of thirteen. His punishment was a period of detention in St. Joseph’s Industrial School in Clonmel, a home for wayward children run by the Roman Catholic Church. At the time it was one of the self-contained territories of the Catholic Church’s state-within-a-state across the island; in subsequent years it became known that some of its staff had practiced physical and sexual abuse against its incarcerated pupils. The adult Howard later claimed that he had been repeatedly assaulted in the institution by one or more religious employees, be they priests or the ironically named Christian Bothers.
Released from the “school” at the age of sixteen the teenager was denied access to the family home and became a vagrant living in local barns and sheds, and perhaps the long abandoned coalmines in the Wolfhill countryside. Older members of the community remember rumours that one day an elderly farmer had been caught engaging in a sexual act with the youth, resulting in some trouble. For a while Howard survived by begging, scavenging and thievery until he was dispatched by the authorities to a second Catholic “school”, St. Conleth’s in Daingean, County Offaly, another place with a reputation for casual violence and rape against minors, and by inculcated minors against other minors. Eventually Howard emigrated to Britain, quite possibly forced to leave Laois by his neighbours and members of the Garda Síochána, a not uncommon occurrence during the period. In 1965, at the age of twenty-one, he was arrested by the British police and successfully prosecuted for the sexual assault of a young child in her home, the UK authorities sending him back to Ireland within months of his conviction.
However by 1969 he had returned to Britain where he was arrested and sentenced again, this time to six years in jail for another attempted rape and battery. In 1973 he was deported to Ireland by the British, despite assaulting a female warder while in prison, ending up in the holiday-resort of Youghal in County Cork. Within months he was arrested by the Gardaí and charged with raping and beating a woman in her dwelling, receiving a risible ten year sentence before returning to the streets in 1981. Disturbingly during this period Howard seems to have associated himself with one or more paedophiles in the Irish midlands and was briefly under Garda observation. In 1983 he married an emotionally damaged woman several years his junior in a brutal, drink-fuelled relationship which lasted for three years. By 1988 he was serving a short prison sentence for non-violent criminal offences, moving upon his release in 1990 to Newry, County Down, to attend an alcohol treatment unit run by the Catholic Church.
Shortly thereafter he travelled to the rural town of Castlederg in County Tyrone, having befriended a male member of a local Irish nationalist family. At the time the border-area, on the western edge of the British occupied north-east of Ireland, was a fiercely contested region between the relatively successful West Tyrone Brigade of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army and the UK military and paramilitary forces, principally the RUC, the regular army and various allied terrorist factions from the British unionist community. A war-zone in all but name, concerns about an outsider’s presence in the Castlederg area were ameliorated by his friendship with a Tyrone family and his seemingly innocuous nature. The Laois man lived for a while in a run-down caravan park just outside the town proper, a location for families and individuals seeking emergency accommodation from the local government council. For the next five years the previously impoverished Howard was apparently never short of money, despite no regular income, garnering a small entourage of fellow drinkers and social misfits he frequently patronised out of his own pocket. These included a number of young women and girls passing through the caravan park or staying with local families. When not sitting with his cronies in the pubs of west Tyrone and Donegal he was roaming the countryside at all hours of the day and night, an inveterate traveller who seemed to turn up in the most unexpected of places. If some were worried about his activities most dismissed him as a harmless crank.
However, despite the initial impressions he gave, Howard was an arch manipulator of human gullibility and by 1991 he had successfully lured a troubled woman many years his junior from Dublin to his home in Tyrone where he imprisoned her for three weeks, subjecting her to repeated sexual assaults. These only came to an end when members of her family arrived and forcibly removed her from his control. Incredibly the crime went unreported until 1996, the individual having borne Howard’s child in the meantime. In 1993 the increasingly brazen abuser kidnapped a sixteen year old runaway girl from County Westmeath, also in the midlands of Ireland, who was living with his then girlfriend, a member of the Tyrone family which had taken a shine to him. Once again he indulged his most depraved whims, this time in a small flat he rented inside Castlederg itself. After three days the girl escaped, fleeing to the local police in the bullet-scarred, heavily-fortified RUC base in the town.
The officers who subsequently interviewed her showed little sympathy for her plight, repeatedly expressing disbelief at her claims, despite forensic evidence that she had been drugged, assaulted and strangled. Whether their disinterest was due to the involvement of “nationalists” or “Catholics”, especially from the “South”, in an alleged crime or something more sinister the girl never knew. Despite his arrest in relation to the kidnapping in Castlederg and being a known risk of flight or witness intimidation Howard was inexplicably granted bail. However something changed in the period before the scheduled court hearing, and the initial charges of five rapes and acts of sodomy were dropped by the paramilitary police. Instead the accused pleaded guilty to unlawful carnal knowledge of an underage girl, a far lesser charge. To outsiders the implication seemed to be that the events in his home had been consensual and the guilty admission was a technical one arising out of the teenager’s age.
Free while awaiting sentencing the seemingly untouchable Howard struck once again, kidnapping and “disappearing” fifteen year old Arlene Arkinson from Castlederg during a night-time visit to neighbouring County Donegal. The vulnerable child, troubled by the loss of her mother at an early age, was never seen again, her body to this day undiscovered. This time the serial-rapist’s actions were to catch up with him, as Arkinson was known to be one of the handful of girls Howard regularly associated with, and was last seen in his company. While local people organised high-profile searches in Donegal and Tyrone the house of the family Howard was friendly with, and who may have been at least partially complicit in his actions, was firebombed. Around the same time several members of the local community approached senior officers of the West Tyrone Brigade of the Irish Republican Army urging them to investigate the matter. The killer quickly fled into hiding across the border, living rough for a short time before being arrested by the RUC in what some believe was a prearranged detention for his own safety. Despite wide-spread suspicions about his involvement in Arlene’s disappearance, the UK authorities chose to pursue the previous case of kidnapping and assault against Howard and he was sentenced to a notably lenient three year suspended sentence in 1995.
Within months of his release he was in Scotland, seeking government-funded accommodation claiming he was being pursued by the IRA. For a while he drifted around the United Kingdom, with occasional fleeting trips across the Irish Sea, his past never far behind him. By 2001 he had befriended and seduced a British woman in Kent, through her gaining access to fourteen year old Hannah Williams, the daughter of a former boyfriend, in Northfleet, on the south-eastern coast of England. Hannah had already been subject to childhood abuse by an ex-boyfriend of her mother and was in some ways typical of the victims the predatory Howard sought out. Inevitably the Laois man kidnapped, raped and murdered the child, burying her body in scrubland near the Blue Lake at Northfleet where it was discovered by construction crews building the extension line of the Channel Tunnel some twelve months later.
In 2003 Howard was arrested and charged with the killing. When the British police in Kent sought background information on the suspect from their colleagues in the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), the successor to the disbanded RUC, they were astonished to be met with a virtual wall of silence. Despite repeated efforts co-operation took months to kick into gear, the murder detectives gaining greater help from the Garda Síochána. Howard was eventually convicted of the killing during a trial which revealed much more of his dreadful criminal career, soon encompassing a litany of other offences (and suspected offences). In 2005 a criminal court in Belfast found Howard not guilty of the murder and disappearance of Arlene Arkinson, when the jury was denied knowledge of his previous convictions. Weeks later a case of raping yet another young woman was also dismissed by the UK-administered courts in the north-east of the country.
In October of 2015 seventy-one year old Robert Howard, the self-styled “Wolfhill Werewolf”, died in Her Majesty’s Prison Frankland, a jail for high-risk prisoners in County Durham, Britain. He was just weeks away from testifying at a new coroner’s inquest into the disappearance of Arlene Arkinson, family and friends hoping he might finally reveal the circumstances of her death and the whereabouts of her remains. Now, in 2016, on the eve of the long delayed inquest, it has been announced that the British government is refusing to hand over a number of files from the PSNI and former RUC directly related to Robert Howard on the grounds of “national security”. From the Irish Times:
“The inquest process 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 has signed off on a bid to withhold some top-secret files amid apparent concerns they could harm the public interest.
Northern Ireland Office minister Ben Wallace has approved the Public Interest Immunity (PII) application. The final decision on whether it will be granted rests with the coroner, Brian Sherrard.
Grounds for PII include matters of national security or the protection of police methodologies such as the use of informers.
While the Government has obtained such immunity on sensitive papers relating to legacy terrorist cases in Northern Ireland, lawyers for the Arkinson family have questioned why PII issues would be at play at the inquest into the death of a missing schoolgirl.”
The attempted cover-up by the UK authorities seems to add further weight to the long-held suspicions, circulating since the mid-to-late 1990s, that Howard had been recruited by the Tyrone RUC as a “police informer” sometime between 1990 and 1993, and was under their protection until he “went too far” in 1994 with the murder of Arlene Arkinson. Even then, rather than being brought to justice, the serial-rapist was shuttled off to the Britain, away from further investigations by concerned parties within the paramilitary police or the Irish Republican Army.
The decision by the United Kingdom to block a full and impartial investigation into the circumstances of Arlene Arkinson disappearance, and Robert Howard’s involvement, of course brings to mind similar attempts by Britain to impede any examination of the Kincora’s Boys Home scandal. It seems that the British dirty war in Ireland was a very dirty one indeed.