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Anti-abortion campaigner Bernie Smyth wins harassment appeal against Marie Stopes clinic director

By Alan Erwin

Published 29/06/2015

Bernie Smyth at Laganside Court Monday, June 29, 2015
Bernie Smyth at Laganside Court Monday, June 29, 2015
Bernie Smyth of Precious Life during a protest outside the High Court

A high-profile anti-abortion campaigner today won her appeal against being convicted of harassing a former Marie Stopes clinic director.

The case against Precious Life chief Bernadette Smyth was thrown out after a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence that she pursued a campaign against Dawn Purvis.

But despite the guilty verdict being quashed prosecutors are still to seek a restraining order to stop her going near the ex-Progressive Unionist MLA.

Mrs Smyth, 52, continually denied having harassed Ms Purvis on two dates in January and February last year.

Following her successful appeal at Belfast County Court she said: "I'm just relieved that my family and myself can hold our heads up now that my name has been cleared."

Pro-life campaigners have staged protests and handed out leaflets at the centre which offers sexual and reproductive healthcare and early medical abortions within Northen Ireland's laws since it opened on Belfast's Great Victoria Street in October 2012.

Ms Purvis, who has now stepped down as clinic director, said she was left frightened for her safety following the two alleged incidents.

In the first exchange with demonstrators she told how she put her hand up and asked them to stop harassing her.

At that stage Mrs Smyth was said to have replied in an exaggerated Ballymena/American drawl: "You ain't seen harassment yet, darling."

A month later the pair came into contact again when Ms Purvis' son called to her office with a female friend.

She claimed that as she walked them back out another of the protestors followed the girl up the street.

According to her account Mrs Smyth, of Suffolk Street in Ballymena, then started to cackle at her.

Giving evidence today the former director claimed: "It was very menacing - it was nearly like there's nothing you can do to prevent us doing whatever we're doing in the street."

Mrs Smyth was originally convicted following a contested hearing at Belfast Magistrates' Court last November.

She was ordered to complete 100 hours community service and told to pay Ms Purvis £2,000 compensation.

A five-year restraining order was also imposed to stop the defendant pestering or interfering with the alleged victim, and from going within 20 yards of the front door of the city centre clinic.

But the mother-of-four continually denied any harassment, and mounted an appeal against the guilty verdict.

In court today her barrister, Mark Mulholland QC, challenged Ms Purvis' assertion that the two incidents left her in fear.

During cross-examination he cited the alleged victim's former role within the Progressive Unionist Party, noting its political alignment to the Ulster Volunteer Force.

Questioning her claims to have been intimidated by his client, he put it to her: "Are you not a person with a bit more fortitude than that?"

But Ms Purvis insisted: "I was frightened."

The court heard how she waited a day before reporting one of the incidents to police.

"I thought I could cope with it, but I couldn't. I thought this was another incident I could let go, but I couldn't," she said.

"I was fearful, and all of the protestors were causing me a lot of angst."

However, at the end of the prosecution case Mr Mulholland applied to have the case against his client thrown out.

Judge Gordon Kerr QC backed his submission and dismissed the charges after ruling that the evidence did not meet the standard required for a successful prosecution.

He will now consider a further prosecution request to maintain the restraining order despite the conviction being overturned.

Outside court Mrs Smyth, who was accompanied by family and supporters, said: "I just feel that justice has been done.

"I can now continue with the work I have been doing over the last 18 years, which is to advocate for unborn children."

Asked if she had any message for Ms Purvis, she replied: "None. I have closed that chapter and I don't need to re-open it."

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