Former PUP Assembly member Dawn Purvis told a court on Friday she was “frightened and fearful” for her safety after she claimed she was harassed by the founder of an anti-abortion group.
Ms Purvis, who now works as programme director of Marie Stopes Northern Ireland, claimed that on two occasions earlier this year she was harassed by Bernadette Smyth of Precious Life.
Belfast Magistrates’ Court heard that since Marie Stopes opened a clinic in Belfast in October 2012, members of the Precious Life group have protested outside the office on Great Victoria Street.
As well as offering advice and treatment on sexual and reproductive health, Marie Stopes also provides early medical abortions within the law in Northern Ireland.
Ms Purvis claims that on two separate occasions she was harassed by Ms Smyth – once when she was leaving work and a second time in an incident which involved her son.
Ms Smyth, 51, from Suffolk Street in Ballymena, has denied harassing Ms Purvis on dates between January 8 and February 14, 2014.
Her barrister told the court that Marie Stopes and Precious Life worked to different agendas and that the charges against his client were a “set up”, and that Ms Purvis was “out to get the head honcho” of the anti-abortion group.
He also asked that given her position as one-time head of the PUP, which he said had links to people who “murder and slaughter”, was it really the case that Ms Purvis felt “menaced and intimidated” by Ms Smyth.
Ms Purvis claimed she had to encounter the protesters every time she went to work.
Settling out the first incident on January 9, CCTV footage of which was played to the court, Ms Purvis said she was leaving work when she heard a female voice saying ‘may God forgive you’. She said she approached a group of three protesters outside the clinic and asked them to repeat what was said.
When the comment was repeated, Ms Purvis said she replied in a question by saying ‘may God forgive me?’ before one of the three produced a plastic foetus and said to her ‘don’t you run an abortion clinic’ and ‘don’t you cut the heads off babies’.
Ms Purvis said she then walked away from the protesters, put her hand up and asked them to stop harassing her. At this point, she said, Ms Smyth “said in a very exaggerated drawl ‘you ain’t seen harassment yet, darlin’”.
When asked by a Crown prosecutor how this made her feel, Ms Purvis said she was initially concerned about a colleague who was leaving with her. She added: “When I got home I was very upset and frightened and fearful for my personal safety, and continue to be very frightened for my personal safety.”
The second alleged incident, which was also played to the court, occurred on February 13. Ms Purvis claimed that her son and his female friend called to the clinic to pick up frozen food which needed to be put into the freezer. Ms Purvis said that on the way in, the pair were approached by protesters.
Saying this action had upset her son’s friend, Ms Purvis said she walked them to the door of the building to ensure they were ok when they were leaving. While one of the protesters followed the young girl up the street, Ms Purvis said Ms Smyth started to “cackle, laugh in a very exaggerated way” which she found “intimidating” and “menacing”.
When the defence barrister began cross-examining Ms Purvis and asked her about a pro-life group which was set up in Stormont, deputy district magistrate Chris Holmes said he “wouldn’t allow this case” to become a debate about abortion.
The barrister accused Ms Purvis of setting up the charge, saying that she knew she needed two alleged incidents of harassment to constitute a complaint to police. Regarding the second incident involving her son and his friend, the lawyer accused Ms Purvis of knowing Ms Smyth was outside the building, and of escorting her son and his friend from the building to “provoke a response” from his client.
Ms Purvis denied this, saying she didn’t want to make the situation worse for her son and his friend as they were “fearful”.
After a legal issue arose, deputy district magistrate Holmes adjourned the case until September 16, when more witnesses on behalf of both the prosecution and defence are due to give evidence.