In part four of an interview with the News Letter (links to other parts beneath article), Northern Ireland’s lead prosecutor Barra McGrory tells Ben Lowry that he does not have regrets about charging Pastor James McConnell for his sermon on Islam:
The outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions has been involved in numerous controversial cases, as will be anyone in his position at any time, let alone when the legacy of the Troubles is disputed.
But perhaps no prosecution was more controversial than that of Pastor James McConnell, for making an anti Islamic sermon in 2014.
Asked about the case, Barra McGrory, who steps down in the autumn, says: “Well that’s one of those cases – I know you have a view of it [the interviewer wrote articles fiercely critical of the decision to prosecute and the law behind it – see links below], others have a view of it, they thought it was the wrong decision.
“I’m comfortable with the decision in that the [pastor’s] remarks were considered by the district judge to have been offensive and very offensive but he didn’t think that they met the threshold of grossly offensive which merited a conviction.
“I’m very comfortable with that verdict.”
Pastor McConnell was acquitted of “grossly offensive” remarks during the sermon, in which he said that Islam is “satanic” and “heathen”.
Each day of the trial, the public gallery was packed with supporters of the minister. Father Paddy McCafferty, a Catholic priest who attended throughout, told the News Letter after seeing the pastor grilled by prosecutors: “It is shameful that this man who is a good man should be put through this ordeal.”
A Muslim scholar who flew to Belfast to back Mr McConnell, Imam Sheikh Muhammad Al-Hussaini, spoke of his “love and concern” for the preacher in the witness box as he was fiercely grilled by a prosecution lawyer.
Reflecting on the trial 18 months later, Mr McGrory adds: “The problem with those cases is that there aren’t very many of them. The prosecutor has to apply the test of whether or not there is a reasonable prospect of a conviction.
“The remarks were sufficiently offensive in my view to bring it over the prosecutorial threshold, as did those who worked on the case here.
“The fact that the district judge didn’t think that the remarks were over that threshold is not something I’ve any great issue with.”
Does Mr McGrory have any retrospective regrets?
“No, no and I think Pastor McConnell has acknowledged that the remarks offended a great number of people and that he might think twice about using that language again.”
But it is OK to offend people, isn’t it?
“It’s not OK to offend people, but it’s not a criminal offence to offend people in the context of using language to get across a doctrinal point.
“The case was taken on the basis that we believed there were points in the sermon where he strayed outside the strict doctrinal debate and used language which we considered to be offensive beyond the doctrinal context.
“The judge in the end decided that it was all within a doctrinal context and only on that basis, the remarks weren’t considered to be grossly offensive. So, it was a very fine judgement.”
Should it not be legal to say similar outside a sermon? “There are laws which control and limit free speech in certain contexts. It’s a prosecutor’s nightmare trying to make these finely balanced decisions on whether or not such comments do or do not stray across the line.
“When one looks at the judgement there was no hint of any suggestion from the court that the case had been inappropriately taken but just that we didn’t quite reach the threshold.”
He adds: “You never want to be in a situation where the prosecutor wins every case because if your prosecutor is winning every case they’re only taking cases which are winnable and they’re risk averse.”
• Other parts to DPP interview:
• Ben Lowry on McConnell trial:
Ben Lowry Jan 14 2016: Dr Al-Wazzan role in McConnell case was a reason to pause
Ben Lowry Jan 10 2016: It was indeed shameful to see elderly pastor flounder in court
Ben Lowry Jan 6 2016: It is hugely disturbing that Pastor McConnell was put in the dock