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James McConnell victory for free speech brings happy ending to pantomime

By Suzanne Breen

Oh, what a victory to savour. At a time when freedom of speech is under attack at every turn, make no mistake about how important Belfast Magistrates Court's decision to acquit Pastor James McConnell is.

There could not have been a better ending to this pantomime of a prosecution. A 78-year-old Christian preacher, who doesn't mince his words, isn't the most popular person in our politically-correct times.

There were those in high places lining up to wield the knife had a guilty verdict ensued. They were wrong. Pastor McConnell didn't incite hatred or encourage violence against anybody. He simply expressed his views about another religion.

As a system of beliefs claiming power over others, a religion doesn't have immunity. We are as entitled to throw brickbats at it as we were at any political ideology. In any democracy worth its salt, freedom of speech isn't a luxury for your friends, it's a necessity for your enemies. Defending Pastor McConnell's right to say what he said doesn't mean approving or embracing his sentiments.

Yes, his words were offensive: but so what? Unless we go through life in an anaemic and false fashion, we will all offend the beliefs of others at some point. We need to get over this increasingly dangerous tendency to run to the police if our feelings are hurt. Those who disagree with Pastor McConnell should have challenged him in public and attempted to win the debate, rather than to close it down.

Freedom of speech isn't only for polite persons of a mild disposition airing their views within government-policed parameters. It's about letting challenging, awkward, even offensive voices be heard too, as Judge Liam McNally so wonderfully recognised.

Whatever bright spark in the Public Prosecution Service decided it was a good idea to prosecute an elderly evangelical preacher addressing his own congregation in his own church should hang their head in shame.

At a time when the PPS has so much on its plate, when murderers and sex offenders evade justice because resources are stretched to breaking-point, this prosecution defied belief.

In the face of a draconian action from the State, Pastor McConnell's response was inspirational. He declined the offer of an "informed warning" from the police that would have averted a prosecution - something Sinn Fein hardman Gerry Kelly accepted after an incident with a police Land Rover in north Belfast in 2013. And he said he wouldn't pay any court fine even if that meant jail. A septuagenarian, so spirited and defiant in the face of a prison sentence, deserves our support.

Yet the silence from civil liberties groups here was deafening. While the National Secular Society and liberal Islamic scholars in Britain raised their voices in protest, there wasn't a squeak out of the liberal left in Northern Ireland.

Yesterday the Belfast Islamic Centre said it disagreed with Judge McNally's ruling that Pastor McConnell's words weren't grossly offensive.

I look forward to the day when the centre is as outspoken about those religious practices which mean that women effectively go through life veiled and chained; that stonings, honour killings and public floggings are justified; that homosexuality is a crime deserving the death penalty.

Because it is the evils carried out in the name of religion across the world, not the words of one Belfast pastor, which should concern us.

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