Robinson apologises for any offence over defence of preacher

NI First Minister faced strong criticism after defending pastor over comments on Islam

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson met leaders of the Muslim community in Belfast tonight. He said: “I made it very clear to the people present tonight that I apologise for any offence that I might have caused.” Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson met leaders of the Muslim community in Belfast tonight. He said: “I made it very clear to the people present tonight that I apologise for any offence that I might have caused.” Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Tue, Jun 3, 2014, 21:37

First Minister Peter Robinson apologised for comments he made last week about Muslims when he met members of Northern Ireland’s Islamic community tonight.

His apology made at the Belfast Islamic Centre was accepted by the centre’s spokesman Dr Raied Al-Wazzan, with both Mr Robinson and Dr Al-Wazzan saying now was the time to “draw a line” under the controversy.

Mr Robinson held a 45-meeting with about 60 people from the North’s Muslim community at the centre in Wellington Park in south Belfast.

The meeting was prompted by the First Minister last week defending the right of free speech of Pastor James McConnell ,who said he did not trust Muslims and that he believed Islam was “heathen” and “satanic”.

Mr Robinson had stated that he too did not trust Muslims who engaged in violence or who supported Sharia law to the letter. He did say that he would “trust them to go to the shops” for him.

Mr Robinson met some Muslim leaders last week to whom he apologised in private. Since then, however, there have been continuing calls for him to make a public apology.

Outside the centre speaking to the press, Mr Robinson expressed contrition. “I apologised to these gentlemen if anything that I said caused them hurt and I can see that in many cases it has… I apologised to them face-to-face, personally, man to man, the way it should be done,” he said.

“I apologised for any offence that I might have caused and I made it very clear to them that the very last thing I would have on my mind would be to cause anyone hurt or distress or to insult them,” he added.

“I can’t spend the rest of my life apologising, but what I can do is spend the rest of my life building a united community that I believe that we want in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“From our point of view we have drawn a line under the past and we very much want to move forward respecting each other.”

He also paid a sideways tribute to the contribution to Northern Ireland of Muslim people. He said he was introduced to everyone at the meeting last night, while adding, “There were so many doctors among them that I just wondered how the health service was running tonight with all of them here.

“But it does indicate how much this society must depend on people from ethnic minorities and religious minorities for the day-to-day life of our province.”

Mr Robinson was asked by one Muslim present would he condemn Pastor McConnell’s comments. He said that everyone had the right to free speech, “but whether they are in politics, whether they are pillars of society or whether they are the press they must exercise that right with responsibility and with care”.

Dr Al-Wazzan said the meeting was “extremely positive” and the discussion “very frank and open”. “I think now we have to draw a line under this issue. We have to think about moving forward,” he said.

Earlier yesterday, the Assembly condemned recent racist attacks and opposed racism, discrimination and intolerance.