After the drama of Monday, McConnell case settles down for legal details

Pastor James McConnell arrives at Belfast's Laganside Courts for the second day of his trial. ''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Pastor James McConnell arrives at Belfast's Laganside Courts for the second day of his trial. ''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

After the colour and high drama at the opening day of Pastor McConnell’s trial on Monday, yesterday was a much more technical hearing.

The 100-seat public gallery was again full of supporters of the preacher, who is fighting the charge that he made “grossly offensive” comments in a sermon last year.

On Monday, the court case got under way with a full playing of the church service in which the sermon was made, including hymns and prayers.

There was nothing so surreal as gospel songs ringing out around the court yesterday, but the morning legal session did begin with another recording of a BBC radio interview with Pastor McConnell being played to the court.

On Monday, the interviews that were played had been conducted with Stephen Nolan. Yesterday it was an interview with Enda McClafferty, after the pastor had been summonsed.

By then Mr McConnell’s determination to fight the case seemed settled.

“I will stand against the Muslim belief,” he told the BBC presenter. “I will not hurt a Muslim personally.”

Mr McClafferty asked: “Are you prepared to go to jail?”

“Yes, yes,” he replied. “I don’t want to go to jail but I am prepared to go to jail.”

Mr McClafferty said to him that it all could have been over if he had accepted the warning.
“If I had of said, yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir.”

At an animated point in the interview, Mr McConnell snapped: “Let me answer here or go home.” The gallery laughed at that exchange.

The trial moved on to the questioning of a female PSNI constable who was in charge of the case against Mr McConnell. Asked how many statements she had received from “people of the Muslim faith”, she said four. When further asked by Philip Mateer QC, for the pastor, how many had come forward to make statements, she said two, one before he was interviewed by police in June and one after.

When asked if one of the statements was by a member of the Belfast Islamic Centre, the constable said it was. Asked if the person was still a member of the centre, she said she did not know.

The officer was asked if she “followed up on his views on Isis”. Judge McNally intervened at this point to ask the purpose of such questions.

Mr Mateer said it was part of a bid to see whether the prosecution fell within the guidelines. Mr McNally stopped such questioning.

Mr Mateer then began his bid to have the case thrown out. He cited guidelines for prosecuting such cases in England and Wales which, he said, was ordinarily something to which courts in Northern Ireland would have regard.

The comments had to be more than “simply offensive” and the prosecution had to be necessary and proportionate, which was unlikely where the suspect has expressed genuine remorse. This, Mr Mateer said, was clearly the case with Mr McConnell.

Mr McNally considered the matter over lunch. The most dramatic moment of the day was when he returned to court and everyone listened intently to see if perhaps the case was over.

It was not, the judge said, because he could only dismiss at this stage it there were no circumstances in which he could convict, which was not the case.