Henry McDonald: I am an atheist but I miss hearing Preacher Man on the streets of Belfast, and strongly defend his right to free speech

Almost every day of the working week a preacher man disturbs my thoughts in downtown Belfast.

By Henry McDonald
Monday, 18th October 2021, 11:36 am
Updated Monday, 18th October 2021, 11:52 am
So long as no one is publicly urging violence against those with lifestyles they disapprove of then their right to free preach should be defended
So long as no one is publicly urging violence against those with lifestyles they disapprove of then their right to free preach should be defended

The peace and quiet inside the wood panelled, book lined august surroundings of the Linenhall Library is punctured nearly every afternoon by out of tune Gospel inspired songs down below in Fountain Street.

As I sit down either to research or write at a table by the window overlooking a coffee shop the singing begins. This is normally when I reach for the headphones, plug them into the laptop and search on the web for Bach or Beethoven to block out the external noise.

Preacher Man belts out his hymns before handing out religious tracts to workers, shoppers, school kids and tourists who pass him by. He often starts his pitch just after a young red-haired Croatian woman finishes off her busking routine in the same street. The switch in styles and sound is eerily seamless.

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Henry McDonald is a former Guardian and Observer Ireland correspondent and author of books including a biography of David Trimble and 'INLA: Deadly Divisions'

It appears almost as if the two of them have some kind of unwritten agreement as to when one of them wrap ups their set and the other takes to the street-stage.

Although his repertoire is out of tune Preacher Man still has a powerful voice for someone in his late sixties or early seventies, which somehow feels connected to the strength of his religious conviction. It booms and resonates above the constant whoosh of buses and Gliders passing by in Wellington Place.

While I am an atheist and secularist who believes in the separation of all churches from the state, I cannot help but admire the dedication of this lone grey haired, slightly built, eternally smiling evangelical singer pressing his leaflets non-intrusively towards a generally indifferent Belfast public.

There are other preachers also with a daily presence milling around the centre of the city who are, if you like, more difficult “hard cases” for us non-believers. They either drive around in a car with a PA sound system mounted on its roof barking out conservative evangelical Christian messages in the same way politicians sell themselves on four wheels at election time; or else they stand up in places like Cornmarket.

They are also followed around the city centre by an equally determined knot of youthful LGBT activists who wave rainbow flags while staring face-off at those who preach among other things the so-called “sin” of homosexuality.

Often the police are not far from the scene in case things get out of hand although in the numerous times I have witnessed these stand-offs both preachers and protestors have been entirely peaceful.

Some on the left in this society believe that there should be no free speech for those labelled “hate preachers.” The Garda Siochana seem to share that view because at present three evangelical Christians are being tried in a Dundalk court for preaching against homosexuality in the Co Louth town back on September 21. The trio were arrested that day, handcuffed and charged with public order offences at Dundalk Garda station.

Indeed, the PSNI set the bar for policing-the-preachers earlier this year by arresting other evangelicals in Larne, Enniskillen and Newry because they were accused of transmitting the same anti-gay messages.

Yet the case of the Dundalk 3, the right of the hard-line preachers to offend those young activists that shadow them around Belfast city centre and the Gospel tract giving, solo singing preacher man outside my window all present liberals, socialists and secularists with the “Town Square Test”.

This challenge was set in 2004 by Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident, Jewish refusenik in the USSR and human rights activist.

In his book ‘The Case For Democracy’, Sharansky said the threshold test for a free society was this: “If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment or physical harm, then that person is in a fear society, not a free society.”

The radical flag waving band of LGBT demonstrators who stalk their evangelical opponents have every right to a space in that ‘town square’.

Yet those they protest against also deserve their place in that public square too as do the Dundalk 3 no matter how ludicrous, objectionable or homophobic you think their street sermons may sound.

So long as no one is publicly urging violence against those with lifestyles they disapprove of then their right to free speech and free preach should be defended like everyone else’s. To start cherry picking who is allowed in the ‘town square’ is the slippery slope to a nascent form of totalitarianism.

As I write on this typical Belfast autumnal day with an insipidly grey sky above and a seasonal chill in the air the street beyond my window it is unusually quiet.

There are no medleys of 1960s or 70s cult rock classics being rattled out on guitar by the Croatian busker or any Christian hymns being sung by the dogged evangelist who often encroaches on my concentration.

I hope and guess that they both will return soon to Fountain Street and continue to occupy their rightful place also in Sharansky’s ‘public square.’

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