DUP cry of double standards as 'Satanic Islam' sermon pastor James McConnell faces court while band's rant gets all-clear
Anger is growing over the decision to prosecute a firebrand preacher who faces jail for describing Islam as "Satanic".
The DUP has strongly criticised the PSNI and the Public Prosecution Service for deciding to proceed with the case against 78-year-old Pastor James McConnell.
The pastor of the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle is being charged under the Communications Act, rather than for committing a hate crime.
The charges centre on a controversial sermon he gave in his church last year in which he said: "Islam is heathen, Islam is Satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in Hell." The sermon was streamed on the internet.
But now a DUP MLA has written to the Chief Constable and to the PPS asking them to explain why Pastor McConnell is subject to charges, while in the case involving a folk band last year no further action was taken.
The Druids' performance at the Ardoyne Fleadh sparked anger among unionists after one the band members was recorded saying: "As we stand here tonight in Ardoyne we're well aware that here in the occupied six counties of Ireland there are still over 5,000 British soldiers parading around the streets of Ireland as if they owned it.
"It's about time that they took down their little Union Jacks, it's about time that they got all their Orange comrades together, it's about time that they loaded up the bus and it's about time that they all f****d off back to England where they came from."
The remarks at the Belfast City Council-funded event were reported to police but the PPS advised that no criminal offence had been committed.
DUP MLA William Humphrey said: "There seems to be a double standard being applied here and it is up to the PPS to prove that this is not the case.
"The implied justification for PSNI and PPS inaction on the matter of The Druids was that the speech was given to a nationalist crowd in a nationalist area.
"This is false. This was an open air event, with a concert-standard PA system. The sounds travels far, as evidenced by noise complaints from previous years.
"The event takes place in the grounds of the Holy Cross Boys' Primary School. The grounds are yards from the interfaces of Ardoyne/Woodvale and Ardoyne/Lower Oldpark. It also ignores its distribution on the internet."
The MLA went on to say: "The differential behaviour by the PSNI and PPS in dealing with these two complaints in north Belfast is contributing to distrust in and disengagement from our policing and legal processes. These problems need to be acknowledged and addressed. Therefore I call on the PSNI and the PPS to offer full and public explanations of why they behaved differently in these two cases."
A PSNI spokeswoman said: "In any situation where there are grounds to suspect an offence has been committed, PSNI will conduct an investigation and submit a file to the PPS. Direction on prosecution is a matter for the PPS."
A spokeswoman for the PPS said: "We have not yet received Mr Humphrey's letter. While we cannot for legal reasons discuss in detail a live case, we would make the following points: The PPS takes all of its prosecutorial decisions based on the available evidence and independently of any political influence.
"The assumption that these cases are directly comparable is wrong. The only similarity is that a decision was made in both cases that the test for prosecution for an offence of stirring up hatred or arousing fear, contrary to Article 9 (1) of the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 was not met.
"The decision to prosecute Pastor McConnell relates to the different offence of sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that was grossly offensive, contrary to section 127(1) of the Communications Act. There was no evidence available to support the bringing of such a charge in the case of the Druids.
"We consider that this matter is now most properly left to the courts to decide."
It is understood that a key difference in the approach to the two cases was that Pastor McConnell published his own sermon on the internet while The Druids' remarks were recorded and placed online by another person.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph earlier this week Pastor McConnell said he was prepared to go to jail rather than withdraw his remarks.
He said: "I am 78 years of age and in ill health but jail knows no fear for me," he said.
"They can lock me up with sex offenders, hoodlums and paramilitaries and I will do my time.
"I have no regrets about what I said. I do not hate Muslims but I denounce Islam as a doctrine. I will be pleading 'not guilty' when I stand in the dock in August."