The trial of Pastor McConnell reached its dramatic peak yesterday at 10.30am, when the third and final day in this historic court case got under way.
The pastor himself took to the stand for evidence that lasted 80 minutes, and included the most intense moments in hearings that have had the atmosphere of an emotional rollercoaster.
After the pastor had taken his seat in the dock, the judge – Liam McNally – spoke to his supporters in the public gallery, giving them what was in effect a polite warning to refrain from the sort of conduct, including occasional applause, that had punctuated earlier parts of the trial.
McConnell, a polished pulpit performer, at first seemed confident and vigorous for a man aged 78 as he spoke clearly in response to questions from his lawyer about his background.
Philip Mateer QC asked about how long he had been a preacher (60 years) and his Church’s tradition (“Pentecostal with a capital P”) and the present building (the fourth and largest premises since the Church began with a congregation of 10 in a rented Orange hall on the Whitewell Road).
After hearing how his congregation came from as far away as Portrush, and how the Church had converted IRA men and loyalists, the questioning gradually cranked up in significance.
When the pastor explained the importance of doctrine to the Tabernacle, Mr Mateer raised the point that some people would say nowadays that it was exclusive.
Pastor McConnell conceded that that was so, but said that the “the founder of our religion, Lord Jesus Christ, said ‘I am the way’”.
“If you are saying we are intolerant, then the founder of our religion was intolerant.”
Mr Mateer moved on to the controversial sermon. Had he intended to provoke Muslims? “It never entered my head to do that.”
Referring to the most vivid section of the sermon, Mr Mateer asked if the pastor believed in a literal Satan?
“Yes,” answered the defendant without hesitation.
Was there a hell, and did Satan live there?
“Yes,” said Pastor McConnell, before adding quickly to laughter from the gallery: “Well, he’s not living there yet, he’s going there.”
The pastor was asked about his remark that Islam was heathen and he cited scriptural justification for that view.
He was asked about his reference to the “weather-beaten House of Windsor”. This, the pastor explained, had been said because Prince Charles was “supposed to be defender of the Christian religion and he wants to be defender of all faiths. That is impossible”.
Asked about Islamic persecution of Christians, Mr McConnell said: “The Islam religion looks upon me and everyone who believes in Jesus Christ as satanic.”
He explained his reference to cells by noting that he had been speaking 18 months ago and terror attacks in Europe and America since then had proved “what I said was correct”. There were terror cells just as there had been IRA cells which “helped to win the victory for the IRA”.
Questioned whether he had been trying to tarnish every Muslim, the preacher replied: “Never in a million years.” There were, he explained, good Muslims in Britain and bad Muslims in Britain, good Roman Catholics and bad Roman Catholics, good Protestants and bad Protestants.
Asked about his reference to Enoch Powell, McConnell said that the former Tory and later Ulster Unionist MP had said some accurate things about problems with immigration.
And the pastor explained his decision to reject the informed warning on the grounds that it would have been “an insult to [Jesus]”.
The prosecuting barrister David Russell then questioned the pastor. Like the judge, Mr McNally, Mr Russell seemed to be at pains to ensure that Mr McConnell was comfortable, offering him a break if he needed it.
He began by asking whether the sermon had needed careful presentation and careful thought, which the pastor said it did.
Gradually, Mr Russell moved towards the section in which the pastor had said he didn’t trust Muslims.
“You are referring to every single Muslim?” he asked.
“No way am I referring to every single Muslim,” the pastor replied.
Why, then, had he later qualified the comments? “Because Nolan brought them up in his show.”
Now the cross-examination was heating up, and the congenial tone of earlier questions fast dried up.
As Mr Russell probed him further, an exasperated-sounding McConnell said: “You are quoting from Mr Nolan.”
The prosecutor took the pastor through the transcripts of one of his Nolan interviews and the questioning and answering quickly became mired in acrimony.
At times, the pastor seemed to be confused and even contradictory on whether he had been referring to all Muslims, and if so why.
“This is trial by Nolan here today,” said McConnell at one point, clearly upset.
“All you are doing is quoting Nolan.”
Mr Russell replied: “I am quoting your words.”
At another tense moment in the evidence, when explaining his outlook on Muslims and extremism, McConnell said: “This is unbelievable. This [extremism] is happening all over the world. Do you believe this? Do you read the papers?”
During one stage in the questioning, when McConnell denied saying something, he was taken to part of the transcript and then muttered “OK” when he saw the remarks in question.
By now he seemed older than he had at the start of the questioning, and harried.
At another stage in questions Mr Russell asked on a point, then suggested it was the cut and thrust of the interview. “It was the cut and thrust of the interview,” the pastor agreed, sounding almost relieved at such a description.
Shortly afterwards, his lawyer, Mr Mateer, stood up to ask if he had, in these Nolan interviews, the benefit of legal advice or advance notice of questions?
No, said the pastor.
The questioning ended just before noon. A trial that had at times been marked by good humour or dry legal argument had turned deadly serious.