Woman harassed abortion clinic boss
A high profile anti-abortionist has been found guilty of harassing the director of Northern Ireland's only Marie Stopes clinic.
Bernadette Smyth, 51, from Suffolk Street, Ballymena, Co Antrim was convicted of two counts of harassment between January and February this year.
District Judge Chris Holmes told Belfast Magistrate s' Court he was in no doubt Smyth's conduct outside the city centre clinic had been threatening and should not be considered a minor offence.
He said: "I do not feel it is acceptable for anyone to be stopped outside this clinic in any shape, form or fashion and asked about their identification."
The judge warned that Smyth, who heads the Precious Life pro-life organisation, could face jail or community service.
He said he would also be imposing a restraining order barring Smyth from an area close to the Marie Stopes clinic.
Judge Holmes said he believed Smyth's "entire purpose" was to stop the work of Marie Stopes. He added: "This lady is someone driven by very strong views and feelings."
Outside court solicitor Aiden Carlin described the conviction as a disappointment for Christians world wide and said they would appeal.
Throughout the hearing Smyth, who was wearing a black dress, heavy pearl necklace and coral-coloured coat, sat impassively surrounded by friends, family and dozens of pro life campaigners who had packed into the public gallery.
The judge said he could not isolate her from the ongoing campaign by Precious Life and other anti- abortion groups who have protested outside the Great Victoria Street clinic since it opened two years ago.
He said he believed Smyth would do "whatever is necessary" to ensure the facility was shut down.
"To say 'You ain't seen harassment yet, darling' in whatever accent is a threat," said Judge Holmes.
"This lady is somebody driven by very strong views and very strong feelings."
Later, the judge added: "Clearly she is someone devoted to the cause. Someone who feels extremely strongly and has worked tirelessly for her cause but the main thrust of the documentation is in relation to campaigns to shut down Marie Stopes.
"That's her cause. This is a lady who is implacably opposed to what is going on inside [the clinic] and the work of Dawn Purvis."
Bernadette Smyth has consistently denied any wrongdoing.
Defence solicitor Mr Carlin described her as a devout Christian who had devoted her life to the promoting the pro-life cause through peaceful means.
He said: "Not one person who is perceived as a customer (of Marie Stopes) has ever made a complaint to the police. The complaints are coming from Dawn Purvis. Consider why that is so. Why is it that Dawn Purvis feels the need to go out on to the street and engage with Bernie Smyth or whoever. Why did she not leave that to her security? Why did she not leave that to the police?"
Mr Carlin also claimed his client had acted "spontaneously".
He added: "If Dawn Purvis had not engaged with Precious Life none of us would be here. It is only because Dawn Purvis came out of her building and engaged with Bernie Smyth that we are here today."
Meanwhile, the judge was also highly critical of the way in which the case was contested and highlighted the deliberate, malicious and unnecessary slander of a police officer and Ms Purvis.
He said: "Throughout this case there has been a concerted attack on anyone seen to be getting in the way of Ms Smyth."
The judge later added: "The incredible slight, slander, defamation of that officer was completely and utterly unjustified. The way I have to look at this case is that it was run, no holds barred in a vicious and malicious fashion."
The case was adjourned for sentencing on December 17.
A compensation order will also be imposed but Judge Holmes but did not fix a sum.
"The amount, I am leaving up to you," he said.
Marie Stopes opened its first clinic in Ireland amid huge controversy in October 2012. It provides access to terminations of pregnancy up to nine weeks' gestation from its city centre base.
On the day it opened hundreds of protesters from across Ireland, including Ms Smyth, gathered outside to show their opposition and to pray.
The 1967 Abortion Act does not apply in Northern Ireland and terminations are only carried out under strict conditions if there is a serious risk to the life or mental health of the mother.
Speaking on behalf of his client outside, Mr Carlin rejected criticism of the way the case was handled.
Mr Carlin said: "This is a disappointment for Christians throughout the world. This will be the subject of an appeal in due course. 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 world wide movement. My client is an international figure in that respect."
Ms Purvis, a former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party which provides political advice to the loyalist paramilitary grouping the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), was not in court to hear the ruling.
In a statement, Ms Purvis said she was relieved and heartened by the verdict.
She said: "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.
"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."
The pro-choice charity Bpas welcomed the conviction and said it should act as a deterrent to hardline campaigners across the UK.
A spokeswoman said: "While we fully support the right to protest, this must be balanced against the rights of women to access legal healthcare in confidence, and the rights of staff to provide these services free from fear and intimidation.
"We are concerned about the escalation of anti-abortion campaigns across the UK. This ruling should serve as a warning to anti-abortion groups that there is a line between protest and harassment, and we hope they will reflect on both the legality and morality of their actions as a result."