Scores of witnesses ready to testify for McConnell, hears court

Pastor James McConnell
Pastor James McConnell

A solicitor for Pastor James McConnell said he was currently wading through “scores” of volunteer witnesses willing to testify on behalf of the firebrand preacher.

Pastor McConnell, from Shore Road, Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, appeared at Belfast Magistrates’ Court charged over a controversial sermon he made last year.

Defence solicitor Paul Dougan said: “The case will be contested. We have been inundated with scores of potential witnesses who wish to give evidence on behalf of Pastor McConnell.”

The 78-year-old preacher is being prosecuted under the 2003 Communications Act after the remarks made from the pulpit of his Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in north Belfast were streamed online last May.

He is charged with improper use of a public electronic communications network and causing a grossly offensive message to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network.

The case may last up to five days, the court heard.

Material broadcast on the radio and television is also being sought by the defence team.

Mr Dougan added: “We have corresponded with the BBC’s legal team on that.”

Another defence solicitor, Joe Rice, told the court they had not abandoned plans to lodge an abuse of process application but were awaiting further disclosure of documents, including a police officer’s notebook.

Hundreds of people attended the Laganside Court Complex in Belfast City Centre for the brief hearing which had to be accommodated in one of the largest court rooms.

The elderly pastor, who was dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and purple tie, did not enter the dock. Instead, he sat in the public gallery beside his wife Margaret, supported by friends and other family members.

Afterwards, amid cheers, applause and hymn singing he told supporters who had filled the court corridor: “I believe, for the prosecution, this is a hot potato. They don’t know how to handle it. They are miserable.

“I am looking forward to testifying if they give me a chance. Either they try me and put me in prison or I am free to preach the gospel.”

North Belfast DUP MP Nigel Dodds stood at the back of the court throughout proceedings.

Outside, Christian supporters were joined by the DUP’s East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson and North Belfast MLA William Humphrey.

The large crowd, some of whom were carrying banners and placards which read ‘We support Pastor McConnell’ and ‘Evil Sharia law is not welcome in our country’, cheered and sang hymns.

After embracing and shaking hands with his supporters, Pastor McConnell said: “I will stand firm for the gospel. I will not relent one inch.”

He said he had been heartened by the level of support.

“This is important, not only for me, it is important for every minister of the gospel of every denomination of freedom of speech and freedom of worship.

“This is, I believe, a test case.”

The case has been adjourned until October 1.