Ian O'Doherty: Lordy, the preacher has the right to be wrong
Truly, you know you're living in interesting times when the rest of Europe has to look to Northern Ireland for a welcome dash of common sense.
That was the rather delightful, and extremely rare, situation we found ourselves in this week when a court finally cleared the rather batty Nordy preacher James McConnell after he was accused of 'improper use of a public electronic communications network and causing a grossly offensive message'.
In other words, he said nasty things and used the internet to spread his message - charges which could be levelled against anyone who has a social media account. The pastor's crime - or not, since he was cleared - was to denounce Islam as 'Satanic' and 'heathen' and, just in case anyone was still confused about his position, he added that it was also 'a doctrine spawned in Hell'.
He placed his offending sermon online, because that's what every self-respecting fire 'n' brimstone preacher does these days and it wasn't long before complaints were being made.
This has some similarities with the case of Ashers bakery in Northern Ireland, when the owners were prosecuted and fined for refusing to bake a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan.
The main similarity, to be honest, is the fact that I yet again find myself in the unusual and, frankly, unenviable, position of siding with hardline Evangelical Christians. As a long time and enthusiastic proponent of sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll atheism, myself and the bible bashers would seldom be on the same page. But the whole point of respecting the principle of free expression is that you will find yourself cosying up to unlikely bed fellows simply because it's the right thing to do, not because you agree with them.
The funny thing about the reaction to pastor McConnell's speech is that nobody seemed prepared to stand up and say: "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?"
Let's face it, apart from sectarian murders and a weird obsession with flags, and of course, the fact that people in Northern Ireland seem to have the thinnest skins in Europe, they have also provided some of the most bonkers religious preachers this side of the American Bible belt.
Ian Paisley may be the most famous of those religious foghorns, but even he was seen as a lightweight by some of the more, ahem, 'committed' born-again Christians.
So if the prosecution had been successful, and the authorities had decided to be consistent, they would have had to open a new jail (maybe a fresh H Block in the shape of a crucifix?) to cope with the number of people they would have had to go after.
For the record, I profoundly disagree with Pastor Jimmy's views, based on one simple fact of logic - Satan isn't real. So, the whole ridiculous and expensive farrago was based on a legal argument over something which doesn't actually exist.
There was one moment of warm and fuzzy ecumenism when an Islamic scholar travelled over from England to give evidence in the Pastor's defence and that was perhaps the only sign of sanity in a legal battle which had all the hallmarks of bald people rioting over a comb.
Also, I doubt McConnell's views on who is hell bound are restricted to Islam. The man is allowed to be a crank, and we are allowed to say he is a crank, just as he is allowed to think that you, me and everyone else is destined for the fiery pit of Hades. That's freedom, baby, even for those of us who are damned.
In fact, I would have said that this was a pointless witch-hunt. But I wouldn't be surprised if he believed in those as well.
Striking over a perk? Have they learned nothing?
This week brought the news that staff at St James's Hospital will soon have to pay for their own parking in hospital grounds, and the cost of that could be as much as €500 a year.
I feel for the staff affected, I genuinely do. Nobody likes to have to pay for something they used to get for free - yes, I'm looking at you, water protesters - and the fact that this was the first thing to greet many workers returning from their Christmas holidays only adds to the sense of irritation. But that's all they should be feeling - irritation.
Instead, Siptu is now talking about holding a strike ballot and they say this is an outrageous attack on the workers and... you get the message.
For most people working in the private sector, this will seem a baffling and infuriating example of public sector unions who haven't learned a thing.
Most of the admin staff in the hospital, who work standard office hours, can have absolutely no complaint about the new charges, simply because that's how the real world works - sometimes little extras get taken away. That happens all the time and the rest of us grumble and go about our day. After all, it is not your employer's job to pay for your parking. That, my friend, is your responsibility.
What's even odder about this kerfuffle is the fact that James's is well served by public transport. A Luas runs through it, as they say. And there are plenty of buses as well.
If staff have to work unsociable hours, they should be covered for extra transport costs but, oh wait - they already are, because the charges don't apply at night.
So, remind again why they want to strike?
What's in a word? Well, quite a lot, apparently. I got into some minor bother a few years ago when I referred to someone with epilepsy as an epileptic. Apparently this was offensive to epileptics - except it wasn't. At least, it wasn't offensive to my epileptic Nana, nor a close friend who also has epilepsy.
In fact, my Nana was offended that they were offended, on the grounds that she felt she had a medical condition, not something to be ashamed of.
My mate was of a similar opinion and, as he put it: "If someone has diabetes, they don't go mental if someone calls them diabetic."
That, I thought, nailed it.
Fast forward to 2016 and the American Diabetic Association has issued new guidelines which state that calling someone 'diabetic' is offensive and they should be known only as 'a person with diabetes.'
Interestingly, the loudest scorn directed towards this new diktat has come from people who have the condition, with one of them saying: "This is a whole load of rubbish. I have diabetes, ergo I am diabetic. If people get offended by this they should go take a big reality check."
Well said, that diabetic man. Sorry, I mean well said, that man with diabetes.
Okay, now I'm confused.