Robinson tries to dampen row over pastor’s remarks

First Minister to meet NI Muslim leaders to demonstrate his support for them

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson said he planned to   meet local Muslim leaders to ‘demonstrate my ongoing support for them as integral law-abiding citizens in Northern Ireland’. Photograph: The Irish Times

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson said he planned to meet local Muslim leaders to ‘demonstrate my ongoing support for them as integral law-abiding citizens in Northern Ireland’. Photograph: The Irish Times

Fri, May 30, 2014, 01:01

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson has moved to try to dampen an escalating controversy caused by his decision to defend a Belfast Protestant evangelical minister who said he did not trust Muslims and described Islam as “heathen” and “satanic” and “spawned in hell”.

In a statement today Mr Robinson repeated that he “strongly” believed Pastor James McConnell “has the right to freedom of speech” but that he “would never seek to cause any insult to any section of our community”.

The DUP leader said he valued the contribution of Muslims to Northern Ireland.

He added that he would meet local Muslim leaders to “demonstrate my ongoing support for them as integral law-abiding citizens in Northern Ireland”.

In an interview published in yesterday’s Irish News Mr Robinson said he would not trust Muslims involved in violence or who fully subscribed to Sharia law.

However he would “trust them to go to the shops” for him, he added.

In today’s statement, issued after a torrent of criticism against the First Minister, Mr Robinson said his remarks had been “given a meaning that was never intended”.

“For the avoidance of any doubt I make it clear that I welcome the contribution made by all communities in Northern Ireland, and in the particular circumstances, the Muslim community,” he said.

“No part of me would want to insult or cause distress to local Muslims. I can assure members of the Islamic community I respect their contribution to our society. I believe in building a peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland and have always endeavoured to work for the betterment of all the people of Northern Ireland,” he added.

He also defended Pastor McConnell whose sermon at his Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle Church on the Shore Road in north Belfast earlier this month sparked this row.

Mr Robinson said, “I strongly believe that Pastor James McConnell has the right to freedom of speech. I will defend his right just as I defend the right of others to express views with which I disagree. People have the right to express their differing views and indeed the essence of democracy is the ability to do so in a way that is free from fear and intimidation.”

Mr Robinson issued his statement following political, religious, church and business condemnation of his initial defence of Pastor McConnell.

On BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show this morning, and before his statement, Alliance Assembly member Anna Lo said she was so outraged by Mr Robinson’s defence that she was considering leaving Northern Ireland where she has lived for 40 years.

She referred to a spate of racist attacks in recent months in the North, particularly in Belfast, and said she feared the comments could “escalate even more of the racist tensions” in Northern Ireland.