McConnell verdict is welcomed

Local politicians have welcomed the decision by high Court judge that Pastor James McConnell is not guilty of making “grossly offensive” remarks about Islam.

The 78-year-old, from Shore Road in Newtownabbey, denied two charges relating to a sermon he gave at Whitewell Metropolitan Church in Belfast in 2014.

Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson criticised the Public Prosecution Service for taking the case against Pastor McConnell, saying that there was never really a case to answer. However, Mr Donaldon also stressed the importance of maintaining not only freedom of speech but also the freedom of religion and ensuring good community relations within Northern Ireland,

“I was delighted with the outcome of the court case,” said Mr Donaldson. “Whilst we must all be sensitive about the things we say in public, there are very clear laws in this country to protect the freedom of religion and speech and we must uphold those fundamental rights.

“At the same time, I would criticise the Public Prosecution Service for bringing this case in the first instance as even people who are not of a religious persuasion have said there really wasn’t a case to answer. We need to promote good relations within our local community but we also need to protect fundamental human rights.”

Lagan Valley MLA Edwin Poots said he believed the PPS were wrong to take Pastor McConnell to court. “I don’t think it was a trial that should have taken place,” he said. “I don’t believe it was in the public interest that a 78 year old man suffering ill health should be dragged through the courts in this way. I will be raising issues regarding the PPS handling of this case. Whilst one does not have to agree with what individuals have to say, free speech should always be cherished.”

Paul Givan MLA said the case was “an attack on free speech.” He added: “In a democratic society a fundamental principle is that of free speech and on matters of religious belief this will inevitably be an area of tension.

“To use the criminal law to silence the expression of difference in opinions is the hallmarks of a totalitarian regime not a democratic society were the people should be free to robustly debate and express their views.

“This tax payer funded show trial of Pastor McConnell should never have happened and steps must be taken to ensure public money is not wasted in the future on a vindictive trial that could have resulted in imprisonment.