Bernie Smyth facing jail over harassment

A Ballymena anti-abortion campaigner has been convicted of harassing a Marie Stopes clinic director at her Belfast city centre offices.

Bernadette Smyth. Brian Little/Presseye

Precious Life chief Bernadette Smyth was warned she could face a jail sentence for her campaign against Dawn Purvis.

Deputy District Judge Chris Holmes made a withering attack on the way the defence of Mrs. Smyth was mounted. He said: “This case was run, no-holds barred, in a vicious and malicious fashion.”

He held that an investigating police officer was deliberately slandered, while Ms Purvis - a former Progressive Unionist Party MLA - herself came under unwarranted attack.

With sentencing put back until next month, Mrs Smyth was told her potential punishment could be community service or prison.

Family and supporters gathered alongside the defendant in the public gallery at Belfast Magistrates’ Court gasped as the options were set out.

Mrs Smyth was also advised she will be ordered to pay compensation and restrained from the area around the clinic.

The 51-year-old had denied harassing Ms Purvis on two dates earlier this year.

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

In her evidence Ms Purvis said she was left frightened for her safety following the two alleged incidents.

During an exchange with protestors on 9 January the clinic director said she put her hand up and asked them to stop harassing her.

At that stage Mrs Smyth was said to have replied in an exaggerated Ballymena/American drawl: “You ain’t seen harassment yet, darling.”

She originally denied to police having used the word harassment, but on viewing CCTV footage of the incident accepted it had been said as a joke.

The second alleged incident occurred on 13 February after Ms Purvis’ son called to her office with a female friend. She told the court the pair were picking up frozen food which needed to be put in the freezer.

Ms Purvis claimed that as she walked them out of the centre one of the protestors followed the girl up the street.

According to her account Mrs Smyth, of Suffolk Street in Ballymena, then started to cackle menacingly.

But the defendant claims she was set up having just been served with a police notice warning of potential action for harassment.

She alleged instead that Ms Purvis “growled” at her through the clinic front door in a bid to provoke a reaction.

The Precious Life founder rejected prosecution contentions that she “cackled like a witch”, insisting instead that her laughter was fuelled by nerves and anxiety.

Ruling on the case on Wednesday, Judge Holmes held that anti-abortion campaigners stationed outside the clinic had been forcing any women of child-bearing age to identify their reasons for entering.

He described Mrs Smyth as someone who has worked tirelessly to shut down the Marie Stopes Clinic.

He said: “What we have here is a lady who is implacably opposed to what is going on inside that building and the work of Dawn Purvis.”

Holding that both incidents amounted to harassment, the judge insisted: “To say ‘You ain’t seen harassment yet, darling’ in whatever accent is a threat.

“This lady is somebody driven by very strong views and very strong feelings.”

Turning to how the defence was run, he said: “Throughout this case, there’s been a concerted attack on anyone seen as getting in the way of Mrs Smyth.”

The judge pointed to a “completely and utterly unjustified” suggestion that senior police officers had expressed serious concerns about the professionalism of an investigation constable.

“She was slandering during the course of this case deliberately and maliciously,” he said.

Mrs Smyth was told she will certainly have some form of restraining order imposed on her.

Although she left court without making comment, her solicitor Aidan Carlin described the verdict as “a disappointment for Christians worldwide”.

He also confirmed plans to mount an appeal against the conviction.