Belfast Telegraph

Bernadette Smyth harassment: With detailed evidence on witch-like cackling and mock Yankee drawls, it was a case like very few others

By Chris Kilpatrick

Power-dressed with statement pearls, Bernadette Smyth looked nothing like a convicted criminal as she emerged from Laganside Court.

But the fall-out from her very public spat with Marie Stopes director Dawn Purvis has resulted in a criminal record, and Ms Smyth facing the possibility of prison.

The courtroom battle between the two centred largely on claims of Ballymena-American drawls and witch-like cackles.

It was a case which threw the spotlight on one of the most emotive subjects in Northern Ireland - abortion - and the protagonists' polar-opposite stances on that debate.

The Marie Stopes sexual and reproductive healthcare centre opened in Great Victoria Street in October 2012 amid protests from anti-abortion campaigners.

Ms Smyth has been the most prominent of those protesters, heading up Precious Life which is said to have become Ireland's largest anti-abortion group since being set up in 1997.

Ms Purvis is the director of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast and was previously the leader of the PUP, the party which has ties with the UVF.

As part of her campaigning work, Ms Smyth and her colleagues stage regular protests outside the clinic, "reaching out" to those engaging with the centre as she put it to the court.

But two confrontations between the women outside the clinic earlier this year ultimately resulted in Ms Smyth facing a possible prison sentence.

Both took to the witness box during the drawn-out case at Laganside Magistrates Court.

The combination of the highly-contentious topic at the heart of the case and the public quarrel between the prominent women made the exchanges in court compulsive viewing.

Ms Purvis told the court she had been left feeling frightened and in fear for her safety as a result of the altercations.

Ms Smyth wept as she claimed she had been set up.

CCTV footage was shown in court of Ms Purvis leaving Marie Stopes on January 9 during the first incident.

She stopped after somebody said "may God forgive you" to her, the court was told.

The clinic director said she put her hand up and asked protesters to stop harassing her.

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

Defence counsel repeatedly performed impressions of the way in which the comment was delivered to the court.

Ms Smyth initially told police she had not used the word harassment. But having been shown CCTV accepted it had been used, but as a joke.

The second incident happened in February when Ms Purvis' son was collecting frozen food from the centre. He had been accompanied by a female friend and as they left Ms Purvis said a protester followed the girl up the street.

Having walked the pair to the door, Ms Purvis said Ms Smyth had "cackled like a witch".

Ms Smyth said Ms Purvis had "growled" at her through the clinic front door.

She said her laughter was a result of nerves and anxiety.

Prosecutor Nicola McCartan previously put it to Ms Smyth she had acted in a deliberately menacing way while demonstrating outside the clinic, laughing in a "witch's manner".

"You were there for the sole purpose in order that she would be intimidated and harassed," said Ms McCartan. Ms Smyth rejected her description of the incident.

"I can't agree with this court referring to me as a witch. I'm a Christian," she replied. She added: "I laughed out of nervousness."

Ms Smyth told the court she did not believe her actions had been criminal, although she did acknowledge her laughter may not have sounded normal. "It was a silly, stupid laugh," she said. "If I had not laughed I would have cried."

Ms Smyth had alleged she was being set up on the day in question, having previously been served with a police notice regarding her behaviour at the clinic. That was firmly rejected by the judge yesterday.

Deputy District Judge Chris Holmes said he was not allowing the case to be about the pro-choice, anti-abortion debate. He said he simply had to determine if harassment took place.

There were gasps from the packed public gallery yesterday when the outcome of the case was announced.

Outside the court, Ms Smyth's solicitor said they would be appealing the conviction.

Speaking on behalf of his client, he said: "This is a disappointment for Christians throughout the world. We are disappointed with the outcome and we will be raising these matters in other court forums.

"It is a principle of law that a person has the right to present their case forcefully and to do all in their power legally to make representations in court. It is part and parcel of the criminal justice system that we have - an adversarial system. Prosecution are entitled to call evidence, defence are entitled to call evidence and the judge will make his ruling. But today's ruling is obviously open to be appealed to the County Court and that is something we are actively looking at.

"The pro-life movement won't go away. It will obviously continue on. The pro-life movement is a worldwide movement. My client is an international figure in that respect."

Ms Purvis welcomed the judge's decision: "I fully respect people's right to peaceful protest, but it is totally unacceptable to intimidate women accessing a legal health service or the staff that provide their care.

"I have both witnessed and been subjected to a culture of daily harassment, and seen these protesters tactics become increasingly aggressive," she said.

"One in three women in the UK will need an abortion in their lifetime and we should be supporting them to make whatever choice is right for them, not adding to their distress. This persecution has gone far enough and I am relieved and heartened that today, women's well-being and rights have been respected and upheld."

Amnesty International said they hoped the court action would "bring an end to the intimidation of healthcare providers and women trying to exercise their right to health care".

Grainne Teggart from Amnesty added: "Today's judgment represents an important day for women in Northern Ireland being able to exercise their right to sexual and reproductive healthcare free from harassment and intimidation.

"This should apply to both providers and women who access these services alike. No one should be harassed for providing or availing of vital healthcare services, including abortion."

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