Questions for PPS over Pastor McConnell case

Pastor James McConnell, right, at court on Tuesday after being cleared, with his solicitor Joe Rice, who criticised the PPS decision to prosecute
Pastor James McConnell, right, at court on Tuesday after being cleared, with his solicitor Joe Rice, who criticised the PPS decision to prosecute

Prosecutors have come under pressure night to explain their decision to prosecute Pastor McConnell for an anti Muslim sermon.

The north Belfast preacher was cleared on Tuesday of making “grossly offensive” comments in a 2014 sermon.

The verdict at the city’s magistrates’ courts, after last months trial, was met with joy by his Christian supporters.

But the pastor’s solicitor called on the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) to explain the decision to prosecute. A secular group also demanded answers, while DUP MP Sammy Wilson, who gave evidence for Mr McConnell, called for the Director of Public Prosecutions to be removed.

The pastor’s solicitor Joe Rice said: “The PPS has questions to answer about the decision making process that led to this prosecution after a huge delay.

“We were treated with nothing but fairnness and professionalism by the PPS in court. Other organisations will have an oversight into the role of the PPS in this.

“But people will ask was this the best way to use scarce public resources to prosecute a man in his late 70s in relation to this case?”

Mr Rice criticised the time lag between the May 2014 sermon the February 2015 PPS decision.

A PPS spokesperson told the News Letter: “We take great care when taking all of our prosecutorial decisions. In relation to this prosecution, there was no avoidable delay in taking our decisions, first to offer an informed warning and then to proceed to court.

“This case gave rise to difficult and novel issues in relation to the limits to the defendant’s freedom of speech and freedom to practise his religion and required careful analysis and consideration of all the relevant evidential and public interest factors.”

Mr Wilson contrasted the case with treatment of republican and Islamic comments in favour of terror. The National Secular Society said the PPS faced “serious questions” over the prosecution, “particularly as it was brought about after a complaint from a man [Dr Raied Al-Wazzan] who had to retract his praise for the Islamic State’s rule”.

In an earlier statement, a PPS spokesperson said that it was clear that Judge Liam McNally’s ruling had vindicated the decision to bring the case.

“This case was brought by the PPS because of the characterisation by Pastor McConnell of all Muslims as potential terrorists by virtue of their faith.

“The court has decided that while offensive this comment, in the context in which it was made, did not reach the grossly offensive threshold required by law for a criminal conviction.

“It is clear from the judgement that the court considered Pastor McConnell had a case to answer and that the decision on whether the comment was offensive or grosasly offensive was not only finely balanced but one for the court and the court alone to take.

“It is not the role of the public prosecutor to usurp the function of the court. The decision to bring this prosecution was entirely consistent with the duty of the PPS to put before the court those cases in which it is considered there is a reasonable prospect of a conviction.”

After the verdict, the News Letter asked Pastor McConnell if in light of the strain of the trial he was happy about his decision to reject the informed warning last year. “I am indeed,” he said.

Mr Rice said: “He took a principled stand and his stand was justified.”

Philip Mateer QC, who defended Pastor McConnell in the trial, said: “I am naturally delighted the judge has preserved free speech.”

Ben Lowry: It is hugely disturbing that Pastor McConnell was put in the dock

Sammy Wilson: Top prosecutor must be removed over Pastor McConnell