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A nervous moment in court as the campaigner in killer heels awaited her sentence

By Deborah McAleese

Striding steadily into the courtroom in her six-inch heels, Bernie Smyth was, as usual, dressed to kill.

Power-dressed in a beige pencil skirt, snug-fitting black blouse and studded belt, with black patent stilettos and leopard-print handbag fashionably hooked in the crook of her arm, the pro-life campaigner joined supporters in the public gallery.

Last month the 52-year-old was found guilty of harassing a director of Ireland's first abortion clinic, the Marie Stopes centre in Belfast.

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

On January 9 this year clinic director Dawn Purvis - the former Progressive Unionist MLA - asked campaigners to stop harassing her. Smyth is said to have replied in an exaggerated Ballymena/American drawl: "You ain't seen harassment yet, darling."

The following month Smyth "cackled menacingly" when one of the protesters followed a female friend of Ms Purvis' son along the street outside the clinic.

But the woman who harassed Ms Purvis to the point that she was left "frightened for her safety" appeared uncharacteristically subdued yesterday as she appeared before Belfast Magistrates Court to be sentenced for two counts of harassment.

With the threat of prison hanging over her, Smyth's perfectly made-up face failed to hide a nervousness not often associated with the fiercely confident campaigner.

As she took her seat among a crowd of around 20 supporters who filled the court's entire public gallery, she clasped her manicured hands in her lap as if in prayer.

Outside the courtroom another group of around 30 supporters, some holding rosary beads, gathered in a circle to pray.

Concerned that his courtroom could become dangerously overcrowded should any more supporters attempt to enter, deputy District Judge Chris Holmes ordered that the doors be locked as soon as court commenced.

Smyth swept her blonde hair back from her face as her lawyer Seamus Lannon urged the judge to show leniency. He said that Smyth had spent a long part of her life "selflessly serving society".

Mr Lannon said that Smyth - the founder of the Precious Life charity - "helped the under-privileged and the vulnerable and those who are least capable of helping themselves".

Disagreeing with a probation report that assessed Smyth's chances of reoffending as high, Mr Lannon said that she "bears no ill-will to Ms Purvis and wishes her no harm and has never wished her any harm".

Smyth walked confidently to the middle of the courtroom so the judge could deliver his sentence.

She looked visibly relieved when Judge Holmes sentenced her to 100 hours of community service, but pursed her lips tightly when ordered to pay Ms Purvis £2,000 in compensation.

Judge Holmes also imposed a five-year restraining order to stop Smyth from "pestering or interfering" with Ms Purvis.

As part of the wide-ranging sentence he further banned Smyth from going within 20 yards of the front door of the city centre clinic over the next five years.

In addition he restrained her from "pestering, interfering with or molesting any persons seeking to leave these premises during the period of five years".

As she left the court, Smyth was greeted by cheering supporters.

And it wasn't long before she was back in fighting spirit.

Her lawyers went straight to the court office to lodge an appeal against her conviction and Smyth vowed to continue with her campaign to close down Marie Stopes. "It is not going to impact on my work," she vowed.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph