At the close of Pastor McConnell’s trial, Ben Lowry looks back at the three-day hearing
Belfast courts have been the scene of countless legal dramas, from highly charged terror trials to major sex cases.
This year that history was added to by two equally notable trials, but of an almost unprecedented character, involving what many Christians consider to be issues fundamental to freedom of worship.
In March it was the trial of Ashers bakery, which was accused of having broken sexual orientation and political discrimination laws.
This week it was the trial of Pastor James McConnell, for alleged “grossly offensive” comments about Muslims.
Both cases were held in Court 12 in the Laganside complex in Belfast, chosen for its spaciousness and ample seating for press and public.
Christians on both occasions filled the 100 seats in the public gallery in support of those in the spotlight, who in one case were said to have been discriminatory to gay people and in the other to those of the Islamic faith.
The trial of McConnell took place on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
Only for a short time were there spare seats in the gallery – on Tuesday afternoon, after lunch, following a dry morning session in which legal arguments for dismissing the case were examined. But even that afternoon the seats gradually filled up again with supporters of McConnell.
There was nothing to prove definitively that they were supporters of him, yet it was clear they were so. They tended to smile, even laugh, at the same points. At stages they gasped at the same comment or development. But the giveaway was the way that, almost to a person, the gallery broke into applause on occasion.
The most striking sequence of laughter-applause was on Monday, when the court was played one of numerous Stephen Nolan interviews of Pastor McConnell. Mr Nolan put to the preacher that Martin McGuinness had called for a police investigation into his controversial May 2014 sermon, sparking laughter in the public seating.
The clip included the pastor’s reaction to the ex-IRA commander’s suggestion: “Tell [Mr McGuinness] to go to the police and confess some of the things he did in the old days.”
Applause broke out in the gallery on hearing that retort.
“But he’s the deputy first minister,” Nolan protested.
“I don’t care what he is,” replied McConnell in the recording, to more laughter from the gallery.
The trial had begun with the playing of a full recording of the service in May. There were almost sharp exchanges between Philip Mateer QC, for McConnell, and District Judge Liam McNally over whether the service should be played in its entirety. “I don’t have to listen to three sets of singing,” said Mr McNally.
Mr Mateer said the full context was important.
David Russell, prosecuting, also emphasised context in his presentation of the facts. He did not dispute Mr Mateer’s summary that the prosecution in effect came down to five words - the last five words in this quote (which we have put in italics): “ ... People say there are good Muslims in Britain — that may be so — but I don’t trust them ...”
But Mr Russell said his other comments, including the description of Islam as “satanic” and “heathen”, were not on their own grossly offensive but were part of the context of the words that were. The BBC interviews, he added, were circumstantial evidence of McConnell’s intent.
In his opening arguments, Mr Russell said the pastor had been saying that he “does not trust a single Muslim”. A cry of “No” rang out across the court, perhaps from McConnell.
On Tuesday, after the day began with the playing of another BBC interview, Mr Mateer gave detailed grounds for dismissing the case then. It fell far short of prosecuting guidelines for such cases in England and Wales, he said. Comments, however despicable, had to be grossly offensive to be liable under the act, not merely offensive.
There was an electric moment after lunch when Mr McNally ruled, and as he led up to his decision it seemed perhaps from his tone he might end the trial. But he said for the case to be dismissed at that stage there would have to be no prospect of conviction, which was not the case.
Wednesday morning was the pinnacle of the trial when McConnell took to the stand. It began in a relaxed style, as Mr Mateer asked about his past. There were moments of humour from the lawyers and the judge.
But when Mr Russell started asking questions, the mood changed. He took McConnell through his comments in the BBC interviews. At times, the pastor seemed confused and flustered. At one stage, indignant, he said: “This is trial by Nolan here today.”
At other points he sounded vulnerable as he came back to the essence of his defence: “I was attacking what [Muslims] believe, that is what I was doing. I’m entitled to do that.”
Perhaps a challenging moment for the audience came when Mr McNally asked if it would have been grossly offensive if the sermon had been in relation to Christians.
The judge read the key part in that form: “... People say there are good Christians in Britain — that may be so — but I don’t trust them ...” etc
Mr Mateer without hesitation said that would also fall short of grossly offensive.
Then came testimony from character witnesses including Sammy Wilson MP and Catholic priest Father Patrick McCafferty, from Crossgar, who had got to know McConnell when he served in north Belfast (“Pastor McConnell has no hatred for anyone whatsoever and the people of his Church are not people who go out in this community and cause trouble, they are the exact opposite.”).Imam Sheikh Muhammad Al-Hussaini, a Muslim scholar who had travelled to Belfast in support of the pastor, was not admitted as an expert witness.
Outside court, Sheikh Al-Hussaini told the News Letter of the “love and concern” he had felt when he saw the pastor being grilled in the dock.
Visibly relieved that his trial was over, McConnell left the premises to cheers. The process had been “fair”, he said, and he could not wait until the verdict on January 5.