Himself Alone

I have no time for religious belief. When somebody offers me a religious explanation for something or a religious reason as to why we should behave in a certain way, my eyes glaze over as I try to locate the nearest exit. God and his gang are not my thing no matter who else it might get through the night.

That does not prevent me from firmly feeling that religious types are entitled to their beliefs, no matter how wacky or zany we might consider them to be. If people want to worship some guy called Jesus or another one called Lucifer, read unicornology or paint their jaxy purple for Purgatory, fine by me. If that's their gig, it’s a matter for themselves so long as I don’t have to suffer it.

It is the vital societal need for the intellectual oxygen photosynthesised from different ideas that constitutes the prosecution of Pastor James McConnell by the PSNI and the PPS as a censorious abomination.  What the pastor is actually guilty of, and no more, is being in possession of a kooky opinion about another kooky set of opinions. 

The pastor told Suzanne Breen of the Belfast Telegraph that he would rather go to prison than allow the state to censor his religious opinion. For that, and not for the ideas he holds, he wins my unalloyed admiration.

Speculating on the possibility of being jailed Pastor McConnell said:

I am 78 years of age and in ill health but jail knows no fear for me ... I am facing up to six months in jail and a hefty fine for saying what I believe. I have had four heart bypasses, a liver operation and I have cancer and diabetes ... All I need to get by in prison is my tablets, my reading glasses and books from the library. If I am sent to jail, I will use my time there reading and writing. My wife is 79 years old and in ill health too. But she has always been my rock and we will get through this together They can lock me up with sex offenders, hoodlums and paramilitaries and I will do my time.

Now if the freedom of expression school can’t take inspiration from the spirited defiance mounted by this 78 year old pastor, there is little that will motivate it. If it fails to stand up for Pastor McConnell its principled opposition to censorship is of no more value than moonshine.  Regardless of the opinions held by the pastor there is only one position for the free speech community to take on this issue. It is the unequivocal one of Back Pastor James.

He might never avail of it but if he does go to prison Pastor McConnell can have the use of this blog to write daily about his experiences and to repeat ad infinitum the things he said in his sermon and for which he is being prosecuted. His civil disobedience on this matter is to be emulated not evaded. 

Neither the seriously vindictive PSNI nor the morally serpentine Public Prosecution Service, despite having mountains of evidence about collusion, torture, police homicide, military massacres and state terrorism, have yet brought anybody responsible to court. The evidence in these cases has been available in some instances for more than forty years. The PSNI cannot seriously expect anybody, other than Barra McGrory perhaps, to entertain the kooky belief that there is less evidence against Freddie Scappaticci than there is in the case of Pastor McConnell.

McConnell’s so called offence is a year old. His legitimate expression of a religious opinion is microscopic set alongside the legacy crimes of the police, their army cohorts, prison staff, judges, prosecutors and state agents. Yet they charge himself alone.

The justice-bereft PPS is punishing Pastor McConnell because he refused to wear the muzzle it sought to clamp around his jaws when he declined its offer of a caution and by extension guilt. The pastor rightly stood his ground and is now being hauled in front of the court by a PPS smarting at meeting somebody with a spine it lacks. 

We can just imagine the sonorously delivered intonation from some spokeswoman at the PPS:

I can confirm that following consideration of a complaint in relation to an internet broadcast of a sermon in May 2014, a decision was taken to offer an individual an informed warning for an offence contrary to the Communications Act 2003. That offence was one of sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that was grossly offensive. The offer of an informed warning was refused by the defendant and accordingly the matter is now proceeding by way of a summary prosecution in the Magistrates Court.

So what if it was grossly offensive to claim that "Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell"? I find it bunkum, as harebrained as Islam, but I certainly do not find it offensive in the slightest. It is on a par with calling Liverpool FC "donkeys." Nor is it remotely close to being as dangerously offensive as clerics calling for gays to be guillotined or women to be stoned.

What I do find grossly offensive is the PPS decision to prosecute McConnell but not one homicidal cop or torturer. That, for some reason does not seem to bother the PPS.

The pastor’s solicitor, Joe Rice in promising to fight the case "tooth and nail" described the prosecution as:

an absolute waste of scarce public funds ... I don't agree with everything Pastor McConnell says but his prosecution represents a threat to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

This gets it without either fanfare or frills.

According to the Bel Tel Rice plans: 

to turn the case into a landmark trial and call a range of political, religious and academic witnesses from across the UK to give evidence "in defence of freedom of speech and freedom of religion".

In a society where the censorious services of Paul Tweed command a higher premium than the sterling work of anti-censorship lawyers, it is heartening to find a solicitor take the state bull by the horns and expose as bull its claims to be defending society from the opinion of a 78 year old pastor.

Back Pastor James.

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

17 comments to ''Himself Alone"

  1. Sadly so true Anthony. If freedom of speech does not protect offensive language, then what does it protect? It seems its protection is akin to the seatbelts the work all time, except in the event of a car crash. The Pastors comments don’t even advocate violence, its purely his opinion. So we have a state that locks up people for opinions, and when those opinions are too deviant (like freedom for all Ireland) the person will be extra judicially executed. Will Cameron need to award himself a chest full of medals before people see him for the despot he is?

  2. Anthony,

    This atheist is in complete agreement with your stance on this issue. I was on the fence about McConnell, because I find his views so obnoxious, but You have put this into perspective in such a way that only a fool would dispute your argument.
    As Daithi says 'the Pastor's comments don't even advocate violence, it is purely his opinion', could that be said of the speeches of the late I R K Paisley?

  3. Well said, Anthony. If this purely fascist tactic is allowed to stand, any expression of view not in vogue with the elite will be suppressed. Unapproved dissent will be equated to hate speech.

    I've no time for McConnell, as I view him as an abuser of the gospel, but I'm right behind his or anyone's right to freely express dissent at another's philosophical, political or religious world-view. That is one thing that unites us, British or Irish.

    BTW, it's 'Jim', not Jack.

  4. Wolfsbane,

    thanks for this.

    Took my eye of the ball, thinking it was John and made a play of the John/Jack alternates.

    We can only leave it as it is now with your clarification to the good.

    More substantively, the issue is clearly one of censorship. James McConnell expressed an opinion and the thought police are trying to break him on it.

  5. DaithiD,

    your point about him not advocating violence is important. This is the policing of opinion, nothing else.

    Michael, I am pleased that you find merit in the argument. But we have seen the way it was going with the decision to investigate Jim Wells for expressing an opinion on gays. I abhor the comments but the threat of police action against Wells for expressing his view (he was not calling for gays to be stoned or beheaded) is intimidation: simple as. The cops should be bluntly told to fuck off, be afforded no succour whatsoever and be frustrated at every turn in their investigation. They should be met with a wave of civil disobedience from those who favour freedom of opinion otherwise, the words of another pastor, Niemoller, will come back to haunt us all.

  6. Wolfsbane,

    relented and made the change!


  7. A few days after he had to go to the home of two pakistani men and apologize for their home being attacked, he even paid for the broken window. Those men do not even live in Northern Ireland anymore. If lots of protestants worship you then you have to be responsible and not stir up hate. He said something along the lines of there may be "good Muslims" in Britain, "but I don't trust them". He said Enoch Powell was right. He was deliberately stirring up hate against a whole bunch of people (and putting it on the internet). Do you believe Paisley and seawright and other unionists were right when they said thing about catholics. People weren't so eager to support their free speech in fact people wanted to kill them for it.
    He says he will go to jail. Does he have any idea what he is in for? Willie Frazer was all up for going to prison for his beliefs, then he went to prison then came out and said straight away no cause is worth going to prison for.

  8. AM, never surprises me how it gets twisted. The only thing that im unclear about , is whether people like alwayssunny genuinely believe it equates to support of Paisley, or they are just wilfully clouding the debate. What Paisley said (and did) was quantitatively different to this Pastor. If stirring up hate is a crime, then lets modulate the Leftwing "anti-austerity" protests that took place in my city yesterday too, certainly some intemperate language there.Do you really trust the Government to legislate in this area?

  9. Anthony,

    I have always admired your advocacy of others rights to express an oppositional perspective. The element of fair play that underpins it is very appealing and the arguments you construct make for enjoyable reading.

  10. Robert,

    thanks you. As you know, not all our readers think we should allow opinions they don't like.

  11. Another well thought through piece from Dr Big Mackers.

    Challenging as it may be to support protection of the rights of deluded bigoted fundamentalists ... to criticise competing equally deluded dogma ... protected they ought be.

    Freedom of expression by necessity must include the freedom to express irrational beliefs too.

  12. alwayssunny genuinely believe it equates to support of Paisley, or they are just wilfully clouding the debate.

    Clouding the debate, how? When George Seawright said Catholics should be incinerated did you support his right to free speech? I think it is a fair point I doubt any of you in the 70s or 80s were defending unionists right to free speech. People didn't defend Paisleys right to slag off Catholics, so why should I defend pastor Mcconnells right to talk about muslims.

    What I do find grossly offensive is the PPS decision to prosecute McConnell but not one homicidal cop or torturer. That, for some reason does not seem to bother the PPS.
    This is a better example of 'clouding the debate'. Bringing in the FRU etc to a completely different case. Can no one be prosecuted now because the PPS have protected agents?

    thanks you. As you know, not all our readers think we should allow opinions they don't like.
    If this was aimed to me I never said your opinion should not be allowed I am just writing that I disagree, is that not what comments are for.

  13. Always Sunny,

    it was not aimed at you. Your comments on free speech are mild by comparison to some of the stuff we get seeking people who write for this site to be denied a voice.

  14. alwayssunny, Paisley incited violence, unless you think there is a peaceful message of men parading in fields holding gun certificates, and that there is ambiguity to his "kill the killers speech". Can you not see the difference between inciting violence and offering an offensive opinion?
    And yes I would be in favour of Unionists free speech, they do a better job than any Republican in making themselves look like outmoded bastard children of an Empire thats gone.(Note : Thats thats an example of offense without the violent implications.)

  15. Great piece Anthony. I'm so glad you wrote this.

  16. There was a letter in the Sindo from a priest bemoaning the fact that a journo had doubted the priest's congregation's belief in transubstantiation. The cleric said the journo's comments were “wrong and disrespectful … and wholly offensive to people of faith”. The issue here is that the oul' cleric is taking the same position that led to the Charlie Hebdo killings – which is that religious belief itself is somehow sacred and should never be questioned or challenged, and, when it is challenged, believers are entitled to feel “offended”. Yet, as people who take offence easily, the religious generally speaking have no problem trampling all over the rights of non-believers - for instance, in the control of education North and South of the Border - no matter how much offence this gives to non-believers. Frankly, the day that religious opinions should be cossetted for fear of offence is long over. If anyone wants to believe in sky fairies, fair enough, but don't foist that belief on me and don't get preciously offended if I express the view that your beliefs are pure codswallop - because I have no problem about you saying the same about my beliefs. The same, by the way, goes for the near-religious views held about 1690 and 1916.

  17. Tonyo

    Well said. Unfortunately, many people like to live much of their lives in a dream-like trance ... best not to try to waken them up ... the more brainwashed they are ... expect a more aggressive or more hostile response.


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