Belfast used to be one of the great industrial cities of the British Empire, sending ships, machinery and textiles to every corner of the globe. These days one of the city's main offerings to the world consists of legal test cases in which the freedom of one person or community is pitted against the sensibilities of other parties. Only a few months ago, in an internationally-watched saga, a bakery in Belfast was obliged to pay compensation after it refused, citing religious objections, to bake a cake with the words "Support Gay Marriage".
This week a test of the definition of "hate speech" moved a step forward when Pastor James McConnell, a fiery evangelical preacher, appeared briefly in court to hear charges that he was guilty of using electronic communications to disseminate a "grossly offensive" message. The accusations arose from a sermon, also broadcast by internet, in which he described Islam as a "satanic" belief which had been "spawned in hell". Speaking on behalf of the 78-year-old evangelist, a solicitor said "we are declaring...a very candid not-guilty" and strongly defended his client's entitlement to air his opinions. The lawyer added that Mr McConnell "did not incite hatred or encourage violence against Muslims. He simply expressed his views about another religion, not in a personalised manner but in an entirely generalised way."